Black Sea Hotel Delivers Hauntingly Innovative Versions of Classic Balkan Songs

by delarue

This blog’s predecessor affectionately dubbed Black Sea Hotel “a punk rock version of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares.” The Brooklyn a-cappella trio sing haunting, bracingly intense folk songs from the Balkans, specializing in Bulgarian and Macedonian tunes. That they were invited to perform at the Bulgarian Consulate attests to their cred and grasp of Balkan languages (none of the trio are native speakers). That it’s impossible to tell from the album who’s singing what testifies to the meticulously nuanced, otherworldly vocal sorcery of Willa Roberts, Sarah Small and Corinna Snyder (who has since left the ensemble). Their second cd, The Forest Is Shaking and Swaying, might well be the most magical album put out by any New York group in the past several years, let alone 2013.  The three women swoop and dive from stratospheric highs to resonant lows, with eerie close harmonies, ornamented trills, the occasional whoop of delight or dread suddenly cut off cold.

If their music sounds troubled, that’s because times were hard back when these songs were a central part of village life. Yet the themes are universal: girls want their guys to buy them stuff (and they like to strut it), neighbors are nosy, and everybody wants someone and something they can’t have. Much of the album was recorded at Temple Beth Emeth in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, whose rich natural reverb adds to the songs’ lingering mystery. The group’s favorite harmony is A-Bflat-B – can anything possibly be any cooler than that? And not to dis founding member Joy Radish, who left the group in around 2010, but these trio arrangements, most of them by the members themselves, are just as inventive as the charts sung by the quartet on their 2009 debut album. Some are beefed-up folk melodies, others are scaled-down versions of works typically sung by large choirs.

If you’re not Bulgarian. you’d probably never guess that the gist of the tricky metrics, pinpoint staccato and acidic harmonies of the opening track describes a guy promising to buy shoes and a dress for his sweetheart. Likewise, Small’s conspiratorial arrangement of a Macedonian song, where a guy asks for a bunch of basil from a girl’s garden and she basically tells him to get lost…unless he’s single. But a lot of the melodies and arrangements deliver a message that transcends language. There’s a wartime ache and longing in a brooding, atmospheric Macedonian tune whose message is essentially, “Come meet the rebels, they’re coming down from the mountain.” A Snyder arrangement of a song about a surreal dream concerning (symbolism alert) two doves being killed by bullets has the livewire intensity of a brass band. Roberts’ arrangement of a Bulgarian song about a woman asking a cuckoo where her lost love might be has a distantly imploring quality, as well as a sense of flight vividly captured in the vocals’ slides and atmospherics. There are eight other tracks here dealing with supernatural dragonmen, nobles greedily awaiting the death of a rival, flirtatious guys and their consequences in, maybe, the 17th century, a bitter contemplation of old age, and one song partially in tersely poetic English translation.  All of these have a similarly crystalline beauty and persistent unease. For non Bulgarian and Macedonian speakers, the album comes with a helpful digest of song meanings.

What is the future for these three edgy singers? Snyder has a career in academia; Roberts is also an accomplished violinist; and Small – daughter of acclaimed, individualistic pianist/composer Haskell Small – may actually be better known as a photographer. Her elegant largescale tableaux are sort of a classier counterpart to Spencer Tunick’s work.