Jim Foley, RootsWorld Bulletin #346, USA
Ambrozijn, the Belgian trio of Tom Theuns, Wim Claeys, and Wouter Vandenabeele, rejoin their now customary producer Gabriel Yacoub for their fifth recording, Krakalin. It is an oddly varied musical experience. The instrumental prowess is immediately evident and compelling, but the choice of material can be difficult, even deliberately disturbing as in "Kuifje in Bergom." Theuns' vocals demand acclimatization from the listener, and his lyrics are even more difficult to conveniently categorize. And Ambrozijn challenges expectation in an even more subversive fashion, by essaying popular French styles of the recent past as in "l'Avion" and "Sur la Rive Gauche," avoiding tackiness and imbuing them with sympathetic resonance.
The title track begins with a dark tango beat, quavering violin suggesting Gypsies, Thom Theuns' vocal alternately whispered and rasped out through clenched teeth, softening into tenderness when joined at the end by guest vocalist Vera Coomans. While the instrumental performances are themselves riveting, the full effect is complex and seductive, Tom Waits performing Weil reinterpreted by Brel. "De Karabiezen" is refreshingly upbeat, bouncy Django-esque jazz with fiddle and mandolin in lively collaboration. In "l'Avion," a dramatic art song, Claeys' accordion supports a surprisingly warm vocal, with brief violin breaks suggesting a carefree, vertiginous swirl with a hint of sadness. "Près d'un Cerisier" is a lightly swaying accordion-based waltz, highly suggestive of Cajun styles, and Theuns' husky baritone is emotional and even exciting as it skates the very edge of falling off the melody. "How Far We Are Near" finds Theuns at the upper register of his vocal range and smoother than in other songs, backed by a string section. The lyrics, apparently about mortality, impart an odd mixture of longing and whimsy, explicitly evoking stable contradictions.
On "Down in Sulamonia," my favorite song on Krakalin, hand percussion, violin, accordion, and string bass impart a clearly Balkan tone. With a stuttering beat and serpentine melodic figure, Theuns' vocal and skewed lyrics find the perfect expression of simultaneous attraction and repulsion, beauty and danger. "Kuifje in Bergom," one of two instrumental tracks, is another standout. It begins with a very Celtic figure on lone accordion, lilting, but culminating each coda with a disturbing sprinkle of minor key notes, as if air had escaped from an emotive balloon. Vandenabeele takes up a related melody on viola, more lively with percussive and accordion bass support, but still ending each passage with that distressing minor flourish. Theuns' bell-like guitar break is pretty and all too short.
"Sur la Rive Gauche" is a haunted waltz with falsetto vocal; it is pretty, sad, and ruminative and one can almost picture the crying clowns, the steady drizzle. "De Matroos" begins dramatically, accordion drone behind Theuns' gay yet not quite happy rendition of a traditional lay with a Breton sound to it. The accordion begins to pulse and Theuns' guitar adds a blues-rock flavor, but this interpretation in turn gives way to a stormy fury, ending on a sarcastic note. The sparsely produced waltz "Sometimes It's Gold," strummed on acoustic guitar with string bass, finds Theuns trading verses with Coomans, in duet on final verse and refrain, with lyrics of gentle romantic anomie.
Krakalin is a recording of challenging contrasts and variety with a melancholy disposition. It demands a good deal of the listener, but is worth the effort.