In August of 2006, Shara Worden and her band My Brightest Diamond released an album called Bring Me the Workhorse. It was an artful combination of indie rock and classical arrangement, tied together by Worden’s distinctive and powerful voice. Bring Me the Workhorse was an impressive debut—the sharp guitar-playing formed a strong backbone, and Worden’s voice showed an easy mastery of the high drama her songs demanded. Though there was a strong element of Björk-worship, the songs held their own—and still have power and presence today.
The new album, A Thousand Shark’s Teeth, is different. Produced and arranged by Worden, and made up of songs written both before and after the earlier album, this material retains the muscular indie language of the debut, but is at the same time more complex and denser musically—altogether more classical. If it’s the influence of Worden’s former composition teacher Padma Newsome, that’s great. Newsome, the virtuoso behind Clogs, is himself making some of the most compelling new minimalist chamber-indie crossover pieces around. Now Worden can count herself with at least the same seriousness of purpose.
That’s not to say My Brightest Diamond has turned into a classical project. Nor is it to be lumped with the hulking obviousness of a group like Tarantula A.D. Part of the difference is in Worden’s much-celebrated voice, in as fine form here as you would expect. But the music itself is lither. It uses guitar to add an exclamation point in a song’s coda, or to infuse a sense of menace to a floating piece like opener “Inside a Boy”. But the guitars are treated more as one piece of a full orchestra of instruments on A Thousand Shark’s Teeth, less like a traditional band-with-orchestral-flourishes.
Let’s examine this a bit closer. “Like a Sieve”, a pattering, attractive song, churns on complex machinery. The song reminds of one of those Vaughan Williams folk songs from the beginning of the 20th century, where he uses casual atonalities to undermine the pastoral simplicity of the lyrics. Worden undermines her own operatic delivery in a similar way. But she takes it a step further by doing away with the verse-refrain structure in favour of a more atmospheric, free-flowing form. Even more buried is the fact that the song’s built off a sample by Tricky. There are many examples like this throughout the album.
“Bass Player” might be the highlight of the album. Coiled, syncopated bass lines fit unexpectedly; above them, Worden spins out an old-school, minor key romantic ballad reminiscent of Nick Cave. Thing is, the orchestration’s more complex, all overlapping wind instruments and tinkling marimba, building inexorably with tremolo strings, breathing new life into her desperate plea: “Blow me a kiss before I drown”.
Still, you get the feeling that My Brightest Diamond is on its way up, not yet at the peak of its musical expression. Worden still channels Björk, but occasionally also Regina Spektor, and the altered pronunciation feels at times a little put-on. In the moments where she dips back into familiar rock textures, Worden shares the crashing intensity of Jeff Buckley—but it’s not quite as compelling as the more original compositions. Songs like “The Ice & the Storm”, with its complex harmonies and atonal haunting of sonic ghosts, and the drum machine-fuelled “Apples”, with its complex interplay of pizzicato and duelling rhythmic/lyrical delivery, prove this.
It’s nothing too much to complain about—there’s still plenty to appreciate about A Thousand Shark’s Teeth. It’s a swooning, big-gestured album to get lost in. Discovering new complexities and subtleties each time is an added bonus.