I feel transplanted everytime I listen to the latest offering from Steven R. Smith's Hala Strana project. I feel like I'm ripped out of my cushy apartment and thrust into the heart of Eastern Europe. As a teenager, I was obsessed with Eastern European life, music, and culture. I studied the treasures of Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and others. The first time I heard Hala Strana (which was on last year's amazing "Fielding" double CD-R), I was speechless. Smith's jaw-dropping interpretations of classic folk music from these countries and others was flawless. It was obvious how deeply he felt the music. There's no other way he could have made it seem so much like his own.
"These Villages" is a perfect representation of the feelings and ideas I have about autumn. It is the time of year I love the most. Leaves change, the air becomes crisp, and the smell of chimney smoke fills the skies. It's an envigorating time. It's when I look back on the past year and start to appreciate all the highs and lows I've experience. I find inspiration in simply being alive. So it should come as no surprise that at one point this album was called "These Villages in Fall." It's the soundtrack of everyday people's lives in the remote villages of Eastern Europe. It's a land often overlooked and forgotten by people on this side of the Atlantic, but it's a bustling mecca of life and culture. These small towns are like small towns everywhere: people getting by day-to-day, just thankful for another meal and another sunrise. Steven R. Smith has their spirit flowing through his fingertips.
To take in "These Villages" in only pieces would be a disservice to the majesty of the record. At just a shade over 41 minutes, you would be well advised to listen to this album in its entirety rather than fits and starts. The hopeful melancholy provided by a bouzouki, hurdy gurdy, psaltery, bul bul tarang, and other traditional instruments adds to the authenticity. Also impressive is the fact that it's nearly impossible to distinguish between Smith's originals and his interpretations/covers of traditional pieces. The fit together like an intricate puzzle. They seem like brothers in arms - you would never know that some were adopted, and others linked by blood.
Hala Strana is an eye-opening listening experience for more than one reason. It reminds us of a place many have forgotten. It also gives us an intimate look at a place where the simple things matter. With all the talk of "core American values" and other such misnomers, we often lose sight of the fact that most of us hold the same things dear. This music has this overwhelming sense of togetherness and keeping the greater good in mind. It's a beautiful, exorcising listening experience. The amount of talent needed to pull off something like this is immeasurable.
So when the leaves change in your part of the world, remember the aural lessons present on Hala Strana's opus, "These Villages." Reflection is important. Don't just remember the good times and sweep the bad ones under the rug. Take it all in. And when you're walking down the street and you see dozens of strange faces, remember that we're all part of this collective conscious. They've felt those things too. Steven R. Smith is a master, and Hala Strana is arguably the best musical project on the planet today. Don't let this fall pass you by without spending some time with "These Villages." 9/10 -- Brad Rose (25 May, 2005)