This isn’t safe, sanitized folk music: Vlada Tomova’s new album Balkan Tales has a raw, dangerous edge. Anyone who loves the otherworldly tonalities and dark, ominous chromatics of Bulgarian, Balkan and Middle Eastern music will love this – it’s a rich, intense treat, all the way through. The Bulgarian-born singer varies her vocals depending on the lyric, from low and apprehensive, to brassy and plaintively gritty, to absolutely joyous, with the occasional big “wheeeeeee!” at the end of a phrase. Good singers tend to be magnets for good musicians, and Tomova is no exception. While the album’s instrumentation varies widely from song to song, most of them are built around the terse, stately acoustic guitar work of Kyle Senna and bass provided by either Danny Zanker or Sage Reynolds. Oud genius Mavrothi Kontanis adds an especially suspenseful edge on a couple of tracks, including one deliciously low, mysterious solo. The rest of the crew – Uri Sharlin on accordion, Alicia Svigals on violin, Sarah Bowman on cello and Matthias Kunzli on echoey, boomy percussion – shift confidently among the diverse emotions Tomova evokes.
The songs are a mix of traditional material along with some more recent songs whose composers’ identities have not been lost. Senna lights up the second track with a graceful yet biting, chromatically-charged solo: hearing it on a guitar instead of, say, an oud or bouzouki, adds an unusual and interesting texture to the mix. A big ballad by Lubo Alexandrov is gorgeously dark, slow and slinky, with wounded vocals; another by Niko Papaxoglu gets a spare, ghostly, haunted treatment. But Tomova quickly flips the script, following with a wry, trickly rhythmic, irresistibly crescendoing dance tune. One song has a rustic sway much like an Appalachian ballad – before the rhythm shifts and there’s no doubt that it hails from Eastern Europe. Another takes a creepy, two-chord pulse with spiraling wood flute and adds a bit of an acoustic rock edge. Avishai Cohen’s apprehensive muted trumpet imbues one of the later tracks with a pensive, late 60s psychedelic folk-rock feel. The album closes with a suspenseful Kurdish song that works its way from seems like a casual, improvisational intro to a fiery, methodically accelerating, accordion-fueled gallop. Tomova plays Symphony Space this Sunday, Oct 23 at 7 opening for Macedonian wood flute virtuoso Theodosii Spassov; tix are $30 and worth it.