The UK-based Family Elan has unrolled another album that dips into many ethnic strands to pull out an atmosphere that ranges from dark and reflective to downright jaunty. Chris Hladowski is joined by Hanna Tuulikki and Patrick Farmer to blend a kitchen sink of influences in crafting this set, with muted, stylized cover art by Tuulikki.
The tunes often employ an openminded approach to instrumentation and form that includes not only what sounds like tremolo electric guitar on the devastating original, “Our Bed Is Green,” but also spoken-word samples on “The Trees of Ixfahan.” Although it doesn’t sound like a wide variety of instruments are played, the tunes sound deceptively diverse, as the band individualizes the songs through the strength of their parts and what might be some subtle overdubbing. The string leads on “Glendi Ke Horos” ring like dulcimers, and an array of tabla-like drums fill out flutes and several stringed instrument sounds. At times, flutes inspired by British folk music play over more Eastern-sounding droning strings and chants. This creates a compelling blend, excelling especially with darker or more ambivalent moods. The Balkan influence is ever-present, casting a mysterious and familiar shadow for anyone who might like A Hawk & A Hacksaw or even Beirut. Crucially, all of the instruments are played extraordinarily well, with the trio locking into a wide variety of grooves that succeed greatly as a result of their commitment and precision.
What hinders this album as a whole, however, may be this very openmindedness, seeing as how the clear standouts are the original tunes, like “All the Rooks Have Been Spent.” The rest of the songs come from a number of different sources, including Anatolia, Uzbekistan, Greece, and the medieval era, but they don’t connect in a coherent way that elevates them beyond being a collection of songs. The liner notes, which are written in a maddeningly ornate script, don’t give much information beyond this immediate source material, which prevents the release from working as a historical record of some kind. The lack of context makes it hard to understand what stamp the Family Elan has put onto those history-laden tunes, and how much in their arrangements stems from vanity—it seems some of the pieces were chosen because they simply liked them. But perhaps this is the way folk music has always progressed—certain strands being plucked from obscurity to be reconstituted and revealed in a new way, growing into the present, while the rest is lost. 7/10 -- Travis Bird (28 July, 2010)