Music

Little Big Town: Tornado

There are enough songs in the dreamy, bittersweet, vocal-tapestry vein that I can convince myself it is their real agenda, even as they foreground the goofier and “country-er” songs.


Little Big Town

Tornado

Label: Capitol
UK Release Date: 2012-09-24
Amazon
iTunes

The quartet Little Big Town hails from Homewood, Alabama, and their first hit was about living in the “Boondocks”. Sometimes it seems like they choose for singles their songs that seem to most directly tap into small-town/rural imagery. Past success with those singles might be why the first single from their fifth album, Tornado, is called “Pontoon” and -- yes -- is a straightforward chronicle of relaxing on a pontoon boat. It’s a bluesy bit of total fluff. If there’s a life-message subtext here, it could be that floating is better than climbing (“You can climb the ladder / just don’t rock the boat”), but it’s so understated that I don’t think it really exists. Instead you get dumb stuff like “Step onto the astro turf / get yourself a coozie." The foursome sing together on the chorus, but they’re not fully tapping into their harmonic potential; maybe they even get that this song isn’t worthy of significant harmonizing. Or maybe I just need to hear this song while on a pontoon to get it. I’m reminded of what my one-and-a-half-year-old-son said when I pointed out a pontoon boat on the water once, asking him if he sees the boat. “No, no boat, no boat,” was his response. Already, he knows a real boat when he sees one.

If that’s going to be the route they take to singles, there will be three more from Tornado, somewhat better but still not the best songs on the album. Next might be “Pavement Ends”, the rollicking opener, wherein a boy and a girl head out of town in a truck for a campfire. It has attempts at humor (a “That’s what she said” after a reference to pine), and all four singing in a “we’re having fun” tone about country life, with lines like “Let the good times roll”. It feels like a country hoedown show at Six Flags. Another choice would be the title track, a weather metaphor for revenge; add it to the ever-growing list of women’s revenge tales in country. And then there’s “Front Porch Thing”, which starts with a cappella singer (You know, like they’re just sitting on their porch, harmonizing) before a modern “blues” stomp comes in. The intended menace in that stomp represents economic woes, though the song is built of stock images: a train whistle, crickets, creeks, guitars. They sing of looking for something to “kill these country blues”, but they don’t sound unhappy at all.

While they sing together well, on all of these songs, and on much of the album, I miss the vocal tapestry they can build – the way on their last album The Reason Why they could build their voices up together until their singing became almost an abstraction, its own entity of feeling and sound that made you not hear or care about the lyrics. On Tornado, they get closest to that when there’s sadness in their songs, when they’re singing about lovers instead of locusts. “Your Side of the Bed” occupies a great middle ground between clouds of emotion and concrete details, in its description of both a bedroom and a couple’s struggles. Here they also slow down enough to highlight the loveliness in their music, something sorely needed on their more “fun” tracks. Elsewhere, even when they’re singing optimistically and in a sunny way about love, they keep enough quiet wonder in the song to jibe nicely with the dreamy way they combine their voices; on “Sober”, for example, even with its sentiment “I love being in love”. But that dreamy quietude does come out best on the bittersweet, lonely songs, like “Leaving in Your Eyes” and “Can’t Go Back”, where their voices take on a glowing quality as they hope for love not to end (“I don’t want to be a witness to the end of you and me”).

There are enough songs in that vein that I can convince myself it is their real agenda, even as they foreground the goofier and “country-er” songs, one of which has already climbed the radio charts, and throw in a couple of songs that try to “rock” a little more than I’m comfortable letting them rock. The album ends on a truly spellbinding note, though, with my favorite quiet song of theirs yet – “Night Owl”. In that title image is all of the atmosphere they load into the song. It starts, “Where the steeples / and the skyways meet / through the lonely and deserted streets…”, with the demeanor of a Christmas hymn. At its core, it’s a love song, of course, but one where the man’s voice and woman’s voice sing back and forth in a gentle, alluring conversation. It makes me ponder what a gorgeous album they could make if they weren’t also trying to maintain a career as country music superstars.

6

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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.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

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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