David Wax Museum: Harder Before It Gets Easier


The government is open for business again! In celebration of the return to normalcy — or what passes for “normal” in these mad times — I think we all need a little David Wax Museum. Polarizing rhetoric is rending the nation, with tea-sodden reactionaries warning of the death of democracy. In response to that movement’s antagonism toward immigrants (I mean, really?), I offer the sonic syncretism that is David Wax Museum’s music, which draws from American and Mexican folk traditions to create something that is more than the sum of its parts.

A while back, I was chatting with a friend who had not heard of The Lumineers. I directed him to “Stubborn Love” and “Flowers In Your Hair,” and after giving the band a listen, he asked if I knew David Wax Museum. I didn’t. And I had been missing out on what NPR’s Bob Boilen aptly calls “pure, irresistible joy”.

Donkey jawbone, or quijada — the cool kids’ percussion instrument.

Before I launch into an exposition of the awesomeness of this band, I’ll provide a little context. I tend to react to new music in one of two ways. The songs that immediately get stuck in my head (think “Blurred Lines”) tend to lose their appeal after a few weeks. The music that takes more work at first — for instance, Alt-J’s intricate, morphing textures, or Bon Iver’s falsetto murmurings of impenetrable lyrics — ends up rewarding my effort by revealing an unfamiliar but gorgeous soundscape.

It’s not often that a band falls in the overlapping space on the Venn diagram of my short- and long-term music fixations. But David Wax Museum was both love at first listen and a love that has, so far, withstood the test of time. Initially, I was hooked by their Appalachia-meets-Veracruz rhythms and harmonies, and the accordion-pumping, jarana-strumming exuberance. But the more I listen, the more I am drawn to this rich tapestry of American folk and Mexicon son, with sprinklings of rock (the electric guitar makes an appearance in their latest album). There is an infectious joy in David Wax’s singing and Suz Slezak’s harmonies combined with fiddle-playing and quijada-rattling.

DWM1I’ve seen David Wax Museum twice — first in April at the 9:30 Club in D.C. and then a month later at Rockville, Maryland’s annual street festival. On both occasions, the energy of David and Suz, who form the core of the band, could not be confined to the stage. At the 9:30 Club, the band walked onto the floor and sang while audience members sat in a circle around them. At the Rockville festival, Suz  — one of the loveliest musicians I’ve had the pleasure of meeting (the genuine warmth of her personality comes through in her music) — hopped off the stage and played her fiddle while little kids danced around her and delighted parents clapped along to the beat.

But don’t take my word for it. Give them a listen and see if you can resist clapping or humming or tapping your foot to the music.

I had a tough time choosing one song of theirs to feature. One possibility was the boisterous “Born With A Broken Heart,” with its handclap percussion and promise of possibilities: “If you’re out wandering in the streets / Knock on my window, it will open.” Another was “Will You Be Sleeping,” its horn arrangement juxtaposed with the fragile tenderness of the lyrics: “The rise and fall of your chest / A steady movement I trace as I dress / I bend to kiss the curve of your neck / It’s not a word I’ve used, but for the first time I feel blessed.”

They’re all great, but I had to choose — so I settled on “Harder Before It Gets Easier.” The video is a riot of color (and check out the “accordion” at 3:52), so it is a fitting way to start an autumn weekend.

“Yes, most doors open briefly and then they are shut / The circle of life is a wheel that gets stuck in a rut,” sings David Wax. His lyrics contain clever turns of phrases and are unpretentiously wise, perhaps attributable to all the thinking, reading, and listening he’s done, with his degree in Latin American history and literature and his travels through Mexico.

(Side note: After you listen to “Harder Before It Gets Easier,” try “La Tortolita,” (little turtledove), a song from southern Mexico (Michoacán, to be precise) that Wax learned during his post-college fellowship on folk music in Mexico. The phrasing toward the end of “La Tortolita,” around the 3:00 mark — I’m pretty sure I hear that in the chorus of “Harder Before It Gets Easier.” Cultural cross-pollination is a great thing.)

“Knock knock, fate was at the door / Knock knock, too loud to ignore.” In discouraging times, David Wax Museum’s lively songs, rooted in rich traditions and fusing southern Mexico with south of the Mason-Dixon, remind us that “in the ocean of time, this moment will be brief.” Things may be harder before they get easier, but for now, the National Zoo’s panda cam is back on and my coworkers and I can return to safeguarding clean air and cute critters. That’s not a bad start.

Author: Vivian Wang

A gal with a camera and a penchant for deconstructing lyrics. Know of a band I should be listening to? Need press or concert shots? Let's chat: lithophyte.photo [at] gmail [dot] com.

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