Music

Matt and Kim: Lightning

Matt and Kim have stretched themselves just enough to keep things interesting without ditching the style that makes them appealing in the first place. Also they have a dubstep song on this album.


Matt and Kim

Lightning

Label: Fader
US Release Date: 2012-10-02
UK Release Date: 2012-10-02
Amazon
iTunes

On Lightning, not too much has changed for Matt Johnson and Kim Schifino since 2010's Sidewalks, which itself wasn't much different from 2009's Grand. This isn't to say that the keyboards and drums duo are repeating themselves, but their development is incremental rather than revolutionary. As usual, there are 10 tracks and the album lasts right around 30 minutes. Also as usual, Matt's melodies are bright and sticky, the kind that lodge in your head after only a couple of listens. The album begins with cheery piano chords and Matt's falsetto "ooOOoo"'s before Kim comes in with a laid-back hip-hop beat and Matt layers in synth bass and synth strings. "Let's Go" is catchy and danceable and just grimy enough to feel off the cuff. The chorus is simply Matt shouting "Let's go let's go let's go let's go!" followed by those "ooo"'s again. It's simple and fun and exactly what you'd expect from the duo.

The second track, "Now", starts as a typical uptempo Matt and Kim song as well, with Kim's galloping drumbeat and a speedy repeating synth line. The song takes a surprising left turn about 40 seconds in, though, after Matt sings "So let's cut this whole building down." The song turns to a sample of Matt saying "Now, now, now-now-now-now", followed by a screaming, descending synth note and a dubstep drop. At least, it's Matt and Kim's take on a dubstep drop, and it comes complete with thumping, low, low end bass, Kim pounding away at about a quarter of the original tempo, and gang vocals shouting "Now" on the off-beats. The song even includes a bit where the beat drops out entirely, leaving Matt's synth chords by themselves. Then Kim comes back in and slowly accelerates to the original tempo before hitting the dubstep drop one more time. As an experiment, "Now" is pretty successful. It combines a style of music outside of the duo's usual comfort zone and does it well. But "Now" is mostly works as an experiment; it isn't the best song on the album by a long shot.

That distinction goes to a pair of tracks in the middle of the album. "Not That Bad" rides along on bed of martial drums and simple piano plinks. When the synth brass section comes in and the tempo slows down for the chorus, it feels like something big is coming. Then Matt really manages to sell his woe-is-me refrain, "You called me hopeless / But I swear, it's not that bad / And you said it's worthless / But I swear, it's not that bad" over those slow, oppressive brass chords. Kim's double-time drumbeat in the song's coda is like the cherry on top of a catchy, three-minute song confection. Of course, the song felt more significant the first couple of times I listened to it and it sounded like Matt was saying "homeless" instead of "hopeless", but this isn't the kind of band to tackle topical issues.

The duo follows this slow-and-loud success with the fast-and-loud success of "Overexposed", which starts with a quick-moving wobbly right-hand synth line and is joined by Kim's simultaneous four on the floor kickdrum and hi-hat. When the vocals come in, that quick-moving synth line is replaced by an even faster, finger-twisting keyboard part that continues through the eminently singable pre-chorus "Like a picture / I was overexposed / Be-lieve me / I saw you with my eyes closed" as the drums mostly drop out. The chorus, which is once again just a variation on Matt singing various notes while saying "Oh", is doubled in the keyboard as Kim's drums shift from syncopated to back on the beat. As an added subtle touch, a bass guitar rumbles along in the background at certain points in the song as well. Besides that devilishly difficult-sounding keyboard line, the techniques at work in "Overexposed" are relatively simple. But Matt and Kim combine them so skillfully and at such velocity here that the results are thrilling.

The back half of Lightning is solid with one notable exception. "I Said" returns to the EDM textures of "Now", albeit at a slower tempo. But Matt's fuzzy bass synth tones dominate the song even more than his repetitive chorus of "I said I said I said it's real / I said I said I said take the wheel / But you said you said you said no deal." The disco bass and drumbeat of "Tonight" makes the song the most authentically danceable on the album, and maybe the most fun. The chorus of "I Wonder" may be the catchiest on an album full of earworms. Album closer "Ten Dollars I Found" is Lightning's only real ballad, one that follows in the tradition of Sidewalks standout "Northeast." The twist here is that the song is a duet with both members singing. It's nice to hear Kim's voice, as it allows Matt to sing harmonies in a lower, less nasal-sounding register than usual and gives the song a fuller vocal presence.

The notable exception I mentioned earlier comes with "Much Too Late", the album's penultimate track. It's the punkiest song on the album and it starts like any typical Matt and Kim rocker, at least until it gets to the chorus. "You think I'm some little phony / Thing is you don't fucking know me!" Matt shouts at some unseen target in a fit of teen angst. This juvenile rant might not seem out of place if the band were in their early 20s and making their first or second album, or if they were true punk rockers who made their living on perpetual angst and anger. But this is their fourth album and they make catchy, dancey power-pop songs. "Much Too Late" is a rant that seems to come out of nowhere and doesn't fit in with anything else on this record.

Aside from that, though, this is good stuff. Matt and Kim have stretched themselves just enough to keep things interesting for their listeners without ditching the style that makes them appealing in the first place. Lightning may not find the duo reaching new musical heights, but it will satisfy their fanbase. And who knows? Maybe their forays into 2010's dance music styles will win them some new fans as well.

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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.

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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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