Although the sounds of Mexico have crept into American music, notably migrating across the Texan border to create the Tex-Mex sound, with Los Angeles and San Francisco also come under the Latin spell, such musical hybrids still feel relatively rare and exotic. Those words certainly apply to David Wax Museum’s latest Knock Knock Get Up, an album that takes a deep love of Mexican song and folk traditions and marries a myriad of musical ideas into something exuberant, exciting and perhaps a little otherworldly.
David Wax Museum have already made quite a name for themselves notably at Newport Folk Festival a couple of years ago and then South By Southwest, with three critically lauded albums already under their belt. Their sound has evolved quickly and working with producer Sam Kassirer the core duo of David Wax and Suz Slezak blend their influences into a fuller, richer sound.
David developed a deep love of Mexican music when going through college and studying at Harvard. This led to a fellowship and the chance to spend a year studying the music, based around Veracruz and learning first hand from those who hold the traditions closest. He and Suz met on the Boston folk scene, her background is a little harder to fathom, possibly because of some Quaker roots, but she’s a very fine multi-instrumentalist and vocal foil for David.
Knock Knock Get Up is filled with a dizzying array of instruments and sounds with David on vocals, guitars and traditional Mexican Jarana also adding keyboards, synthesiser and even vibraphone. Suz contributes fiddle, autoharp and the quijada de burro (ass’ jawbone) percussion and also field recordings made in Mexico as well as her harmonies. Regular cohort Greg Glassman fills out the lower registers and adds another voice and there are an array of horns with piccolo, flute and even bass clarinet also in the mix.
The field recordings are introduced from the start and the opener Will You Still Be Sleeping not only blends musical ideas but also different realities. It’s initially quite disorienting, although the song that emerges is joyous, pushed along by complex interlocking rhythms and stabbing horns. It’s densely layered, there’s a burst of electric guitar, a swell of Hammond organ and the brass and pulsing rhythm are used almost like samples.
That disorientation is also felt in All Sense Of Time, there’s a voice that seems to bounce around in the background of the mix but refuses to focus or reveal itself fully. Much of the album seems to have a similarly playful quality to it, instruments are launched at tangents or overlap in a dreamy haze. There’s the clattering percussion and of Harder Before It Gets Easier pushed along by the accordion of David’s cousin Jordan and flurries from Suz’s fiddle. Then there’s almost grungy electric guitar A Dog In This Fight, the middle section of which dissolves into a swirl of keyboards.
Lyrically it intrigues to with David confessing, “Like an egg breathing it’s last breath in a frying pan, I take stock of the mess of a man I am,” in Vivian. Leopard Girl is a slinky but oblique fable and The Rumours Are True offers, “Sometimes with the wrong keys the doors unlock,” repeated to dramatic effect before the melancholic horn drenched coda.
The calm in this musical storm is Wondrous Love featuring Suz’s voice over what is a comparatively simple guitar strum. But both are multi-tracked and there’s a drone, which sounds like it comes from accordion creating a dreaminess. Mostly though these are big, bold soundscapes and the arrangements are gratifyingly unusual, like the baritone saxophone parp of Big Heart Of Yours. The closer Refuge is another slightly off kilter epic that perhaps hints at latter day Talking Heads territory.
It’s almost impossible to describe this album. Comparisons are largely redundant as really it sounds like nothing else. The Mexican influence can certainly be heard throughout, but it’s used as a springboard for a wildly imaginative musical journey that knows no borders.
Song after song is like a leap of musical faith, but that’s meant in the most positive sense and every leap is worth the risk. If you’re not quite sure what will happen next, surely it just adds to the intrigue and anyway, through it all the tunes keep you hooked in for the ride. Repeated plays will be essential, but as the songs start to unveil themselves you’ll just want to keep coming back for more. And this is a CD that is guaranteed to just keep giving and giving.
Review by: Simon Holland
Knock Knock Get Up is released via Mark Of The Leopard 17th June 2013
UK Tour Dates
Sat 20th July 2013 Southern Fried Festival, Perth, Scotland
Sun 21st July 2013 SummerTyne Americana Festival 2013 (Jumpin Hot Stage at 5.00pm), Newcastle upon Tyne
Wed 24th July 2013 The Slaughtered Lamb, London
Sat 27th July 2013 Womad (World Of Music, Arts and Dance), Malmesbury, Wiltshire