Music

The Cave Singers: Welcome Joy

The Cave Singers attain an unheralded harmony between the back porch and the road on their sophomore masterpiece.


The Cave Singers

Welcome Joy

Label: Matador
US Release Date: 2009-08-18
UK Release Date: 2009-08-17
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I first heard the Cave Singers in Neumo’s, a small, sweaty bar in Seattle. The in-house DJ was spinning in anticipation of a gut-busting rock 'n' roll powerhouse out of Detroit. As the crowd continued to grow, the DJ kept the blood flowing with some pretty meaty selections. Then, as if in one of those grand, Hollywood moments of clarity, he introduced me to the Cave Singers. I can’t be sure whether it was Pete Quirk’s raspy, earnest vocals, the gentle rhythms that build into dramatic crescendos, or the constant threat of harmonica that really seduced me. Whatever it was, I left my company and demanded to know what was coming from the speakers. And in classic DJ fashion, I was told in a slightly condescending tone that it was the Cave Singers. “They’re great”, I offered. “I know”, replied the DJ. It occurs to me now, listening to their brilliant new LP, Welcome Joy, that not only had I been introduced to a band, I’d been introduced to a place: the back porch at sunset.

Hearing Welcome Joy, the second full-length from the Seattle threesome, will quickly bring you to the back porch at sunset: a warm and intimate place that so many in the indie folk field try to find, but so few actually do. “Come on baby, let’s take a ride”, coos Quirk to open “Summer Windows”, the delicate and swift-rolling opening track. The track is essentially a four-minute ode to life on the road and finding your way through the heaps of shit that the road often entails, set atop delicate acoustic fingerpicking. The more one listens to Welcome Joy, the more it’s impossible not to feel like embracing the back porch, yet soon moving along.

“Beach House” takes listeners to a comfortable place where one’s settings don’t necessarily define themselves. Quirk remains defiant, his raspy pipes howling over a looping guitar rhythm that’ll take years to get out of your head. The first track released to fans before the release of Welcome Joy is a perfect single and as good as any “summer song” I’ve ever heard.

Yes, it sounds like it has a thousand times before. Yet the rustic charm that remains beguiling throughout Welcome Joy makes it seem as if the Cave Singers have barely lifted a finger to craft each of the ten tracks. The album doesn’t just feature prolific harmonies; the record is one massive, joyous harmony. That back porch must be one expansive, fruitful place to work.

While I’ve been quick to paint Welcome Joy as 2009’s contribution to the long-dead flowers-in-your-hair folk aesthetic, it’s not all relaxed, West Coast musings and patchouli smoke. In fact, when the Cave Singers shed their stools and acoustic guitars in favour of a rollicking, punk-leaning sound, some of the recording's finer moments are heard. What keeps it intact, however, is how not a bit of the Cave Singers' attention to harmony gets lost in the process.

“At The Cut”, a percussion-heavy, sweaty, and raging three-minute dust-up, sounds as if Quirk & Co. have not only shed the skin of their previous release, 2007’s rather light and airy Invitation Songs, but as if they’re scratching at the skin, eager as hell for some sort of evolution in their sound.

But for the time being, the Cave Singers ought to be proud of Welcome Joy. It’ll be classified as a folk record, simply because of its fondness for simple acoustics. Yet here’s a thought, and this might be as good a compliment as I can offer Welcome Joy. If one is travelling the road for longer than an hour, a battle between passengers for control of the iPod usually ensues. An unbalanced and grooveless road trip is usually the result, so let’s consider Welcome Joy for what it is: perhaps the best road trip record of 2009.

Swift, rising verses bring me to the back porch. Emphatic yet rarely overbearing choruses, all delivered in a subtle manner, will always bring me back to the road. The Cave Singers have mastered the art of give and take.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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