Warsaw Village Band burst onto the world music scene when their album People’s Spring was released internationally in early 2004. This young Polish group set out to combine a deep respect for the fiddle traditions of their homeland with a punk rock ethos, and produced some of the most militantly aggressive folk music ever recorded. Even the disc couldn’t match the ferocity of their live performances, though. The young Polish community in New York City embraced the Warsaw Village Band quickly, and the local shows I’ve seen them at featured large numbers of manic fans screaming as loudly for them as they would for any rock band. People’s Spring was already several years old by the time it was released in America, and a new album Uprooting very quickly followed it into the international section in American music stores in late 2004.
In between Uprooting and People’s Spring, original members Maja Kleszcz (cello, vocals), Sylwia Świątkowska (violin, traditional Polish fiddle, vocals), Wojtek Krzak (fiddle), Piotr Gliński (baraban drum), and Maciej Szajjowski (percussion) were joined by Magdalena Sobczak (dulcimer, vocals). One of the few relative weaknesses of People’s Spring was the lack of originality in the vocal arrangements; the women always sang together and in unison. For Uprooting the band gave the vocals a much stronger emphasis. While roughly half the tracks on People’s Spring were instrumentals, only “Polka From Sieradz Region” on the new album features no vocals. In addition, the three women do quite a bit of nice harmonizing, and Kleszcz and Sobczak also turn in some fine lead vocal performances.
The album opens with the first of four quick snippets of field recordings from the elder generation of Polish folk performers. The band members are very quick to acknowledge their sources and mentors, and dedicate the album to two of them. In addition to the changes in the vocals, the band take their instrumental sound in some very interesting directions this time around. The rhythm of the work song “Matthew” is described as being “Mazovia calypso.” “Grey Horse,” another traditional song from Mazovia, is given an unmistakably bluesy feel, further boosted by some sexy lead vocals from Kleszcz. “When Johnny Went To Fight In The War,” the disc’s only original composition (written by Krzak), mixes in jazz and hip hop. The pizzicato fiddling that provides the background for the closing sound “Fishie” could have as easily been inspired by the song “Reptile” by the Australian rock band The Church as by anything traditional. Two songs, “Woman In Hell” and “Let’s Play, Musicians,” employ the services of the Lipsk Women’s Choir, augmenting the band’s own vocals with the strength of numbers. Sometimes the experimentation gets the band into trouble, though. The opening song “In The Forest” is held back by an intrusive and uninspired used of sampling and electronic sound effects. The band thankfully avoids the gadgetry for most of the rest of the disc, allowing their singing and phenomenal playing to speak for themselves.
The aforementioned songs have their moments, and would make for a pretty good album on their own. For all the experimentation, though, Uprooting peaks where the Warsaw Village Band follows the same basic formula that made People’s Spring a strong album and makes their live shows so exciting. When the driving percussive interplay meets Kleszcz’s deep, scraping power chords on cello, with the two fiddlers hammering out melody and counter-melody and the dulcimer providing just the right amount of ambience, the very earth moves with them. On this album, “The Owl” and “I Slayed The Rye” showcase the Warsaw Village Band at their relentless, uncompromising best, and are required listening for anybody who wants to hear the state of the art in folk fiddle music.
Just like its predecessor, Uprooting shows the Warsaw Village Band to be full of creative ideas, remaining rooted in the traditions of their native Poland but always looking forward for ways to take their music to the next level. The music has several tantalizing moments of brilliance that left me begging for more. I wouldn’t necessarily call Uprooting and People’s Spring classic or landmark albums in the genre-defining sense, but the Warsaw Village Band gives every indication of being capable of creating such a record. Stay tuned.