Music

Neko Case: Live from Austin, TX

Wait, wasn't this released on DVD just a short while ago?


Neko Case

Live from Austin, TX

Label: New West
US Release Date: 2007-01-09
UK Release Date: 2007-01-15
Amazon
iTunes

In the summer of 2003, fresh off a rigorous North American tour with the New Pornographers in support of Electric Version, Neko Case ventured south to Austin, Texas to perform on public broadcaster KLRU-TV's long-running music program Austin City Limits. Six years into her solo career, with three highly acclaimed albums, the additional attention of being the female voice of the aforementioned New Pornographers, not to mention the rather odd notoriety of being voted the "sexiest woman in indie rock" by Playboy magazine, it afforded the singer-songwriter a rare opportunity to bring her sumptuous, slow-burning, yet enigmatic take on country torch songs to a wider audience than the usual college radio stations and indie clubs. The program, with its classy backdrop of the Austin skyline and intimacy-enhancing black set, had long been the setting of many memorable performances over the previous three decades, including such legends as Neil Young and Stevie Ray Vaughn, so Case's performance marked a career milestone. However, the inclusion of such an obscure artist (to mainstream audiences) also gave the already venerable series additional credibility, leading to the subsequent inclusion of such indie darlings as the Shins and Spoon on future episodes.

As it turned out, the broadcast version of Case's Austin City Limits performance was oddly truncated, her seven-song set comprising half of an hour-long episode shared with Rosanne Cash, and consequently, seemed a bit more sterile than many had expected. Thankfully, the complete 14-song performance was released on DVD in late 2006, and clearly New West Records wants to make the absolute most of having a Neko Case title in its catalog (the ACL live series is put out by New West, while Anti handles Case's own material), as her performance has been released for a second time in a few months, this time on CD. While one can never have enough Neko Case albums (and goodness knows it takes her a long time to write and record new music), and despite the fact that Case and her three bandmates put on a gorgeous set, the whole exercise seems somewhat pointless, coming on the heels of the very enjoyable DVD version.

We've all grown accustomed to that powerful, inimitable voice of Ms. Case over the years, but it's still a marvel to hear her introduce a song in an understated speaking voice, and then completely envelop and entrance a room with her larger-than-life singing. Case's vocals are clearly the focus here, as the accompanying arrangements are bare-bones at best, with the extremely talented Jon Rauhouse providing minimal guitar, pedal steel, and banjo; Tom V. Ray on upright bass; Case's buddy Kelly Hogan on backing vocals; and Case herself on electric and acoustic guitar from time to time. If a fault of her early work was that she tended to over-sing at times, that's not the case here; continuing where the sublime 2002 album Blacklisted left off, Case is in full control, belting out the notes when needed (the Southern Gothic-tinged "Deep Red Bells" and "Furnace Room Lullaby" sounding even more haunting here), but other songs, like "Maybe Sparrow", which would surface on Fox Confessor Brings the Flood three years later, opt for more subtle brushstrokes.

The previously unreleased "Behind the House" is the one main draw for diehard fans, but the real treats are the six covers. Sook-Yin Lee's "Knock Loud", Lisa Marr's "In California", and Hank Williams' "Alone and Forsaken", all previously found on 2001's Canadian Amp EP, benefit greatly from Case's relaxed, yet measured singing, especially on the Williams tune, which has case and Hogan harmonizing to gorgeous effect. The Catherine Irwin number "Hex", which also appeared on the 2004 stopgap live CD The Tigers Have Spoken, sounds arguably even better here, Case and Hogan offset perfectly by Rauhouse's melancholy, understated slide guitar work. Bob Dylan's "Buckets of Rain" is a welcome departure, allowing Case to temporarily shed the enigmatic chanteuse role in favor of something considerably more playful.

All of the banter between Case and Hogan heard on the broadcast has been edited out on the CD, and although the music is what matters most, the briskly paced Live From Austin, TX does sound somewhat clipped, the introductions by Case that are included sounding nervous (albeit charmingly so), the applause by the audience sounding just a bit too polite. Thankfully, the music comes to the rescue for the entirety of this admittedly enjoyable disc, but it's difficult to justify purchasing it when it's best to spend the extra few bucks and spring for the DVD instead.

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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.

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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