All the greatest singers have a distinctive style: Aretha’s take-charge, centerstage fearlessness; Piaf’s blend of streetwise sass and brittle vulnerability; the Wolf’s mix of clenched-teeth angst and gleeful menace. Eva Salina Primack is more eclectic: while she has the power to belt over a blaring brass band, ultimately, nuance is her forte. Where Neko Case’s wounded wail will avenge you in song and Johnny Cash shoulders your burden with a grim grin, Primack delivers solace. She’s there for you in your most desolate moments. It makes sense that she would understand that, because travelers know solitude well. Niche as her audience may be at this point in time, it’s global, as are her collaborators: contemporary accordionist Merima Kljuco, klezmer jazz maven Frank London and chanteuse Milena Kartowski among them. Considering how highly sought after Primack is, it’s not an overstatement to say that she’s one of this era’s most captivating and distinctive voices.
Much as she’s a band person at heart, her new album Eva Salina Solo is just vocals and accordion. While her game plan with this was to challenge herself, she makes it sound easy, which of course it wasn’t. What’s particularly impressive is that most of the takes are live. She reinvents the Macedonian Romani E Davujla (The Drums), about a girl who loves to dance, as a simmering, hypnotically seductive ballad. She goes light on the vocal ornamentation on that one as well as on the opening song, Stani Mi Majcu (Bulgarian for “get up, mother and bring me my baglama”), letting her notes linger with a distant longing, waiting until almost the end to come in with a simple accordion line. The haunting, chromatically-charged Sar Cirikli – a Macedonian Romani song about a mother’s pain after losing her two sons – makes a showcase for Primack at her most subtle, gentle but guarded, raising her voice with a melismatic unease as it goes on: these songs transcend the limitations of language. And her elegant, darkly swaying accordion matches the vibrato-fueled nocturnal suspense of Jano Janke.
By contrast, another Bulgarian song, Tudoro Ljube Tudorke gets a tender, low-key treatment, completely solo without any instrumentation. Primack brings a high-powered, Appalachian-tinged blue-sky tone to Bela Sum, Bela Junace, a connection she’s made before with equally eye-opening results with her Æ duo vocal project with Aurelia Shrenker. Beno Mes T’abeli, a Greek track that Primack originally recorded on that group’s album, has a coy, lighthearted charm, while Kemano Basal, another Macedonian Romani number, gets a dramatic urgency underscored by tersely potent minor-key accordion. And another Bulgarian tune, Avliga Pee V Gradinka (“the oriole sings”) might be the most gripping song on the album, resolute yet fragile and sung completely a-cappella. Not bad for a native English speaker from Santa Cruz, California. Primack plays a rare solo show at the American Folk Art Museum on the upper west at 5:30 on May 3. And WNYC just today aired a feature on her which you can hear here.