On one hand, Sarah Alden’s new Fists of Violets is sort of the new Luminescent Orchestrii album. The co-founder of that dark, sometimes carnivalesque Balkan ensemble has her bandmates, bassist Benjy Fox-Rosen and multi-instrumentalists Rima Fand and Sxip Shirey, alongside her in addition to first-call accordionist Patrick Farrell and Nation Beat drummer Scott Kettner. On the other hand, this album puts the violinist front and center on a searingly diverse mix of original and traditional songs and instrumentals from two continents. Alden is one of those rare musicians who can play pretty much any style of music and channel any emotion she wants; she embraces Americana as vividly and expertly she does Eastern European sounds, all the while adding her own signature, counterintuitive style. That eclecticism extends to her songwriting and choice of cover material as well. The album is full of surprises: Alden does just about everything differently than you would expect.
It begins with a surprisingly funky take of the old Appalachian ballad Dink’s Tune and ends with the coy, innuendo-fueled accordion waltz Come Take a Trip on My Airship. One of the best and most original songs here is the title track, acoustic Balkan punk rock with Alden and Fand’s violins playing Philip Glass-like broken chords over noirish changes. They follow that with Aunt Viola’s Waltz, a starkly beautiful, pulsing, elegaic, Appalachian-tinged homage to the woman who first taught Alden the violin.
Ida Red, a brisk western swing stomp, brings to mind the Knitters (X doing their oldtime country music side project). Other Balkan bands might likely rock the hell out of Niz Banju Idem, but Alden and her crew attack it with restraint and by doing that make it all the more plaintive and otherworldly, capping it off with a long, wailing Farrell accordion solo. Alden’s unaffectedly bittersweet maple-amber voice brings out every bit of creepy southern gothic apocalypticism in their slowly shuffling take of When Sorrows Encompass Me Round. Then she cuts loose on the oldtimey noir stoner swing tune Willie the Weeper, the most carnivalesque song here, Shirey’s tremolo-picking on the banjo leading up to a long, ominously hypnotic outro. Alden turns in a a jaunty voice-and-piano duo version of Old Man Moon and follows that with the sizzling noir bluegrass romp Ruby Honey Are You Mad at Me, Shirey’s steel guitar spiraling out of the sky in one of the album’s more memorably dramatic moments. There are too many other moments like that to count here: this is one of 2013’s best.