Dálava Credit: Emma Joelle

Few records from 2017 knocked me out like The Book of Transfigurations (Songlines), the second album from husband-and-wife group Dálava. Helmed by singer Julia Ulehla and guitarist Aram Bajakian, the project surveys the traditional Moravian folk songs collected by Ulehla’s great-grandfather Vladimir Ulehla, a biologist by trade who spent much of his life documenting music in the area around his native Strázince. The couple, who started their duo in New York and currently reside in Vancouver, are joined on the album by a slew of jazz musicians, including cellist Peggy Lee, drummer Dylan van der Schyff, and keyboardist Tyson Naylor, who help them transform the songs in a rich, visceral array of settings that move between art rock, folk, and jazz while honoring the eastern-European essence of the source material. On the furiously galloping “The Rocks Began to Crumble”—about a soldier forced to abandon his plans to wed when he’s sent to war—Bajakian’s drunken melodies recall the splattery work Marc Ribot injected into his collaborations with Tom Waits. By contrast, the song that follows it, “Iron Bars, Iron Lock,” channels the voice of a heartbroken young girl imprisoned in her own home and prohibited from seeing her love. Singing the material in its original Czech, Ulehla so thoroughly embodies the voice of each narrator that taken with the kaleidoscopic, beautifully pitched arrangements, it’s impossible not to grasp the emotional heart of each piece. I love the way the full band sounds, but Dálava’s Chicago debut will be as a duo. Last fall I had an opportunity to hear Ulehla sing a couple of songs from the recording a cappella in a stiff meeting room during an ethnographic conference in Katowice, Poland. Not only did her voice command her surroundings, she seemed so utterly possessed by the material that I felt transformed myself, as if I were watching a wizened village woman lamenting by a smoky hearth instead of a young woman strolling beneath fluorescent lighting.   v