Music

Mayday: Bushido Karaoke

Joon Kim

Ted Stevens and co. return with another country-gothic outing that possesses wit, charm, and a disquieting sense of dark beauty.


Mayday

Bushido Karaoke

Label: Saddle Creek
US Release Date: 2005-06-21
UK Release Date: 2005-06-20
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Something very strange happened in the early '90s: American roots music became hip. It went by a lot of names, and no one could agree on what to call it; meaningless descriptors like "alt. country", "Americana", and the utterly ridiculous "twang-core" were thrown around with reckless abandon by the music press at large. Even the fans didn't know what to make of it; the mission statement of No Depression -- the unofficial bible of the genre -- proudly declares that it covers "alternative-country music -- whatever that is". However, despite extensive differences in style, the musicians involved in the scene shared some common qualities, plying their trade in distinctly American styles of music -- be it folk, bluegrass, or country -- and infusing their songs with a sense of urgency and passion that had long been absent from the pop radar.

But the genre met the same fate that awaits every good subversive musical movement, and was soon bought, sold, and compartmentalized. Mainstream pop stars churned out by the Nashville machine claimed to be alt. country, while many of the old standbys either moved on, faded into irrelevance, or became abject self-parodies. And while the genre did not die, per se, it certainly seemed that the old spit and passion -- the same fiery drive that inspired a number of young men and women to seek Uncle Tupelo's mythologized American Midwest -- was diluted, if not completely lost and discarded.

This is perhaps why it is always welcome to hear news of Ted Stevens releasing another album. He's an old hand at this, having led the beloved chamber-pop outfit Lullaby for the Working Class and releasing two previous albums (2002's stunning Old Blood and the follow-up I Know Your Troubles Been Long) under the Mayday moniker. The new LP, Bushido Karaoke, holds no real surprises for those familiar with his oeuvre; however, it still contains the same ardor that informed his previous releases, and the same self-assured conviction that made even his most questionable musical moments ring with a certain pressing poignancy.

Mayday's cast consists of the usual suspects (containing many members of the original Lullaby lineup and some old Omaha / Saddle Creek peers), and their MO remains the same, providing a discolored Polaroid snapshot of rust-soaked Americana for Stevens' nearly paranoiac ruminations on isolation, desperation, and loss. The band channels a sound that is at once distinctly dated yet seemingly fresh; they manage to evoke all manner of countrified, dust-covered landscapes, ably conjuring twisted porches in old Appalachia, smoke-filled honky-tonk bars, and the mythical Old West that only ever existed in Sergio Leone movies.

Opening track "Pelf Help" recalls the slow 6/8 rock shuffles of the '50s; the song sets an oddly familiar backdrop for Stevens' anxious voice, his slow drawl endowing his narration with a smoldering desperation as he accuses a lover of abandoning him for "Residual ambitions from [her] bankrupt past". Similarly, "Burn My Hands" is a measured, country-tinged ballad that easily recalls Stevens' earlier work in Lullaby. Driven by a stumbling piano and delicately-picked guitars, it seems at first to be a simple love song; however, an unsettling background drone lends an ominous tone to Stevens' voice as he sings lines like "there ain't enough land to cover your soul". However, the album is not all leisurely ballads and soft-spoken pleas; songs like the rollicking "Booze & Pills" and a toe-tapping cover of Gillian Welch's "I'm Not Afraid to Die" easily recall vintage Jason & the Scorchers, while others -- such as "Standing in Line at the Gates of Hell" and the driving "Father Time" -- bring to mind the same deserted wastelands once treaded upon by the Man With No Name.

Other tracks delve even further into old America, summoning the spirits of destitute homesteads tucked deep into the mountainous regions of the east. "Billy Boy Blues (Day of the Dead Blues)" and the closer "Song of the Scaffold" could be mistaken for tracks off The Anthology of American Folk Music, were it not for the studio gloss and the addition of an electric guitar here and there; even modern pop isn't safe from Stevens' anachronistic bent, as he transforms the bouncy synth-pop of INXS's "Old World New World" into a barn-burning bluegrass jam.

Of particular note is the production involved in the new recording; while it is not as lush as the board-work found in Old Blood, it is a marked improvement over the tinny and often muddy-sounding treatment given to I Know Your Troubles Been Long. Each instrument remains clear and distinct, without ever dissolving into the often-incoherent swirl of sound that plagued most of Mayday's last album. However, the production in the new album isn't exactly perfect, either; Stevens' voice, while clear, occasionally get bogged down in the mix, and sometimes suffers from a little too much reverb. One of Mayday's biggest strengths is Stevens' clever wordplay and subtly sinister lyricism, and it's a shame when his vocals get lost within the production.

While I am hesitant to say that Bushido Karaoke matches the same sterling standard set by Mayday's masterful debut, it is undoubtedly the strongest album recorded since, and is a definite highlight in Stevens' ever-growing discography. It is at once lovely and strangely discomfiting, a moving musical document evocative of blood, tears, and a startling sense of subdued beauty. And even though it is entirely debatable as to whether the great American myth of years gone by ever really existed, it will seem like it never really mattered anyway: occasionally, the storybook pictures are better than the real thing.

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"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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