[10 February 2009]
On last year’s thrilling A Thousand Shark’s Teeth, Sufjan Stevens footnote Shara Worden was absolutely breathtaking, her chronically dejected vocals soaring over a bed of crashing guitars, insistent drums, and hairline countermelodies that continually popped up like ingenious little gophers at the exact point where Portis and Radio come to a head. When she takes the stage at (Le) Poisson Rouge in New York, however, she’s missing all that. Armed with an acoustic guitar, she is backed by a band defined primarily by a string quartet and, er, not much else… It’s that second detail that makes her live set such a risky maneuver: Navigating the one format with the other without straying into Apocalyptica or String Quarter Tribute To territory is no easy task.
To their credit, the quartet players do their best to rise to the occasion. Thing is, making unusual noises with the wood-on-wood rapping of bow against fingerboard has its place in the avant-garde classical world, and it can occasionally be cute in pop, but how on earth can you position that as a viable alternative to the Nigel Godriched-out pinball percussion from “Apples”? Things improve when Worden takes it upon herself to, for example, trigger an artificial drum loop mid-strum, but the rest of the time this minimalist tack toward songs so heavily based in production subtleties falls unfortunately flat.
Worden has also been known to perform in a rock band format as well as taking to the stage as a soloist, but this newfound adoration of strings still can’t actually be described as a shift in emphasis. Although they’re all over her albums, they’re also only one part of the chamber in her pop, usually augmented by harps and wind instruments and other orchestral voices, which are underrepresented tonight thanks, probably, to the prohibitive costs of things like gas and musicians’ unions.
See, paring down such powerful, imposing, often terrifying music would require expert arrangements, but in many cases, the instrumentation she has on stage was also present as just one of the many subtle layers on the record. So with the strings already accounted for, who exactly is going to pick up the slack when you nix the distorted guitars or the drums? Because it sure isn’t the voice leading.
This is not to say that we need faithful reproductions—an unexpected harmonic departure in the middle of “Inside A Boy” is angular, jarring, and by far most interesting interjection of the set, and when the strings swell up underneath and take over at the end, it’s absolutely sublime. I’m all for artistic growth and boldly traveling into new musical territory, but unfortunately these adaptations are a little too haphazard—or maybe just understaffed—and Worden’s magic has been lost in translation. Maybe it’s just that her strength is as a recording artist, with all the trappings and rhinestones and cheese sauces, and not as a barebones songwriter.
These criticisms feel a bit like prattling on about Jon Brion’s dismissal from Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine (which is to say, entirely legitimate) but at the same time, the chameleon spirit ought to be commended. It’s these outings—the experiments and reinventions and, sometimes, the outright failures—that lead to the intriguing remix albums and make the regular records so rich to begin with. So with that in mind, carry on, Shara Worden; you’ll be better off for it by the time your next record is ready. Just be sure to focus test the next iteration of your backing band.