A Sweet Debut Album and a Williamsburg Gig From New York’s Best New Middle Eastern Band
It took three years, but we’re seeing new bands spring up around town and one of the most auspicious is Baklava Express, whose new album Dávka is streaming at Bandcamp. On one hand, they’re a throwback to the golden age of 50s Middle Eastern music, but they differentiate themselves with both their original instrumentals and the presence of an acoustic guitar for extra spiky textures. They’re ambitious and have a lot of nerve: you would never know that they’re a bunch of Americans They even have a signature song, included here on the record. They’re playing on April 19 at 9 PM at Radegast Hall, where the imported beers and brats are expensive (and huge), but the show is free.
They open the record sacrilegiously with Kosher Bacon. This is some sad forbidden food! Bassist James Robbins bows out a growly drone, violinist Daisy Castro carrying the rainy-day, midrangey waltz tune over the plucky interweave of oudist Josh Kaye and guitarist Max O’Rourke as percussionist Jeremy Smith builds an increasingly boomy beat with his goblet drum.
The album’s slinky, celebratory, chromatically delicious title track is a close approximation of a famous Egyptian bellydance theme, Castro and Kaye syncing up for the lead line, with a tantalizingly brief break for oud and hand drum. Then they go back to moody waltz territory for I’ll Figure It Out, which could just as easily be a starkly catchy Neapolitan lament.
The band work an anthemic, bouncy Gipsy Kings-style descending progression in Reunion, Castro multitracking herself into a bracing one-woman string section, Kaye adding edgy, spiraling leads. Up to Us has trickier syncopation and a biting Turkish flavor, with a spare, sinewy, subtly flamenco-tinged guitar solo.
Castro and Kaye take over a broodingly incisive melody line in a third waltz, The Same River Twice, O’Rourke weaving spiky multitracks with his National steel guitar. In an age of censorship and surveillance, it takes mega guts to release a song titled Turtles All the Way Down (a reference to the iconic, pseudonymous book debunking the myths behind vaccine “science”). This one’s as defiant and lush as you would want from a mashup of a classic levantine anthem and more Andalucian sounds.
Waltz for Omer is a similarly brisk, beefy Spanish Romany-flavored number. They close with their signature tune, which turns out to be part whimsical and part whiplash, with the album’s most adrenalizing oud and violin solos. This is easily one of the best two or three albums released this year so far.