Reviews

My Brightest Diamond

Shain Shapiro

Shara Worden can sing with the best in the business. If only that's all there was to it...

My Brightest Diamond

My Brightest Diamond

City: Amsterdam
Venue: Paradiso
Date: 2007-02-13

Shara Worden can sing with the best in the business. I could hark on for several paragraphs, delving into the astounding pitch and tonality emanating from Worden’s pipes, but that would get gratuitous. To proceed with this review, however, it must be established that Worden sings as forcefully as an operatic soprano, wrenching the words out with an intricate playfulness rarely seen since the days of Joni Mitchell and Carole King. Watching her belt each note live is mesmerizing and plainly impressive. Throughout her show, I stared at the image of her voice -- not the singer herself, but what was coming out of her -- and, with each melody, the tone strengthened. So there you have it: she can sing -- very well. Of course, Worden's voice is just one element that drives her collective, My Brightest Diamond. Dissonance, mood, tonality, image, and creativity all factor into the songwriting as well. With Wolfmother playing a loud, sold-out show downstairs, Worden and an accompanying rhythm section crammed into the cozy upstairs compartment of the Paradiso and, right on time at 8 p.m., started in, swinging the set towards My Brightest Diamond's latest record, Bring Me the Workhorse. About an hour’s worth of original music followed, ending after Worden emerged alone for a quiet, even more intimate encore featuring sparse instrumentation that left her singing almost a capella. Throughout a set that included “Freak Out,” “Rabbit Hole,” and “Workhorse,” Worden laid down plaintive, disparate guitar melodies, intentionally leaving room for her voice to fill in the cracks. As the set unfolded, these cracks, pauses, and rests in the songwriting moved from the background to the fore, as Worden’s pipes forced each melody to play along with her voice. The result proved difficult to bear. It seemed that every time she flirted with experimental ideas, a dissonant rest overtook the mood just as a climactic acme was within reach. The result was an emphasis on Worden and her emphatic wail, rather than what could have been a creative melodic twist and turn. Such twists were constantly straightened in an effort to focus our attention on the vocals, leaning many choral bridges towards aria-like territory instead of crunching down on the heavy rock riff hashed out a few bars earlier. The forced focus and too-sparse instrumentation were made ever-more luminescent in My Brightest Diamond’s choice of songs, which leaned decisively towards ones with dissonant, angrier sounds culled from a more aggressive ethos. The political potency embedded in Worden’s lyrics was obvious, but musically, the intrinsic darkness and morbidity clouding each melody became overbearing. Once again, it was Worden’s voice that was left to pick up the pieces, but often each chunk was too shattered to re-assemble. The set's fierce pensiveness, while demonstrating Worden’s talent in unraveling a morose mystery, became too morbid, too dark, and too sad by the show's end; any consonant melody was cut short for vocal wailing, regardless of whether Worden was flirting with hard rock, punchy folk, opera, classical, or new wave melodics. Yet, the sold-out audience lapped it up, and, in some ways, I did too. I love sad music, which is what My Brightest Diamond excels at crafting, and, as I said, Shara Worden has a forceful voice. Days later, I remain entranced by her vocals and immense range, almost as if I stumbled on a modern-day Edith Piaf practicing arias in a Parisian Café. Yet, the musical accompaniment, in its almost pervasive dissonance and fear of melodic expansion, shoved her voice to the side of the plate -- making it a side dish that tasted lovely but couldn't compensate for the disappointment of a questionably prepared main course.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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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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