Music

Sorta [Dallas, TX]

Photo by Mike Fuentes

Turning the spotlight on a band that's come to an end may seem odd, but the release of Sorta's final album gives cause to mourn the loss of one of Dallas's greatest bands, and honor the memory of one of its most vital musicians.

Patron saints die. In fact, it might even be considered a prerequisite. Obscurity can also be a defining characteristic. Perhaps most defining, however, is their ability to carry the weight of something greater than themselves. A lifetime before American Pie became the name of a film, and decades before Don McLean’s opus became the calling card for indulgent frat party, beer-swilling sing-alongs, it was an honest (if not bloated) investigation into what the aftermath following the loss of a patron saint of music. The city of Dallas, Texas, and the members of its popular band Sorta are now forced to investigate a similar question.

Those of us who listen to, love, and write about music often have to consider what it is that makes music greater than the sum of its notes and lyrics. For many, it seems that the quality of a record is in direct correlation to its honesty. When we hear a song and the emotion of it rings true, most of us think of it as a paramount accomplishment. The release of Sorta's eponymous album, their fifth, asks us to consider what it means if that honesty is the acknowledgment that you just can’t do it anymore. Bass player and vocalist Danny Balis describes the process of finishing the latest and final Sorta record, “It was such a surreal experience nothing really stands out. We were coasting and just trying to get it done. I was pretty detached from the whole thing after Carter died”.

Carter Albrecht, Photo by Mike Fuentes

The Carter he refers to is guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist and Dallas musical ambassador, Carter Albrecht. On September 3, 2007, during the making of Sorta’s record, Carter was shot outside the home of his girlfriend, Ryan. There have been varying reports of the circumstances that night. This much is known: Carter and his girlfriend returned from an evening out. After taking the anti-smoking pill Chantix, Carter became incoherent and violent. He struck his girlfriend and she fled the house. Moments later, after leaving the home himself, Carter was shot attempting to enter the home of a neighbor. The shot was intended to be a warning blast, but, because of Carter’s height, it was fatal. As news broke nationally, the announcement that a member of Edie Brickell’s band had died failed to resonate with many, who thought of Albrecht as a solo artist, the peaceful front man of Sparrows, and/or member of Sorta. By day’s end, however, all of Dallas’s musical community was mourning the loss of one of the scene's favorite sons. Once the funeral was over, the charity concert held, and most questions answered, one remained for Carter’s former band mates: What should be done with Sorta and the record that they had nearly finished?

Sorta, and its many members, had long been a beloved part of Dallas's musical landscape. Originated by Danny Balis and Trey Johnson, Albrecht found his way into the band after seeing them perform at the Barely House. The three were a part of an evolving scene that centered around the local tavern and musical venue. Albrecht’s presence in Dallas music was already ubiquitous. Ward Williams, a college friend and band mate said, “I saw Carter playing in a Grateful Dead cover band at Club Dada,” nearly a decade ago. Even then his fingers were in everything musical in Dallas. Salim Nourallah -- musician, producer, and Dallas resident -- agreed, "Carter played on just about every record I ever did." At the time that Albrecht joined Sorta, he was still writing and performing as Sparrows and playing keys for Edie Brickell’s New Bohemians. After Albrecht came into the fold, Trey Carmichael came on-board to play drums. As the instrumentation became more complex, the need for another instrumentalist became evident. Williams, Carter's close friend and member of Sparrows, was added on guitar and lap and pedal steel guitar.

The band released its first record, Laugh Out Loud, in 2002. It received great reviews and garnered wide support from the Dallas music community. Understanding the enormity of that local support requires some understanding of the Dallas music scene. Some might say that Dallas has a chip on its shoulder about music. Nourallah describes it as a “Rodney Dangerfield” complex, saying that musicians in Dallas battle for “art in a city of commerce.” That chip may not be out of place. After all, Austin gets so much attention it's hard not to be overshadowed. Thanks to massive local support, Austin has emerged as the epicenter of music in the United States. Even little Denton has become a Mecca of sorts for various music fans. Dallas, on the other hand, has had seemingly little to cheer about in local music. Many of the venues once packed in Deep Ellum are gone. Homegrown heroes the Old 97’s have chosen local gigs more carefully since the beating of a fan at the Gypsy Tea Room, a local venue. Trees closed. Jeroboam was invisible. The original Barley House was forced to move. Simply put, Dallas became a tough place to be a musician. In fact, Nourallah refuses to speak of the scene in Dallas in present terms, offering that when the Barley House changed locations “the city of Dallas won and the Barley House lost. Music lost.”

Photo by Bill Ellison

Despite all of the changes on the Dallas music scene, Sorta became a constant. Balis was a radio personality and fronted the King Bucks. Albrecht was writing and recording, as well as playing with Trey and others at the Barley. The release of Little Bay in 2004 and Strange and Sad But True in 2006 were also met with local (and occasionally national) attention. Sorta were, in many ways, the kings of Dallas. The addition of the city's highly regarded Chris Holt in 2006 only solidified that role, though inroads outside of Dallas were still difficult to capitalize on. The lack of infrastructure and support kept Sorta regional. Said Ward Williams, “Being in Dallas, you can be naïve. You tend to think ‘Oh, we can do this on our own,’ so we never had any of those pieces that you need in place. “

That status was not necessarily a source of frustration with everyone. With many band members having other gigs and families, most of Sorta seemed content to put out records and tour regionally. There wasn't disinterest in the national stage, but rather a sense of contentment to make great music regardless of the level of commercial success it brought. Albrecht, however, seemed driven to improve Dallas’s standing in the world of music. Williams said, “I always thought Carter had this cross to bear; like he was going to make Dallas into the next Seattle or something.” Nourallah offered a similar take saying, "He just loved his friends and we were lucky enough to live where he did.” Not in dispute was Albrecht’s position in the Dallas scene. He was a constant at the Barley House, a vocal supporter of anyone willing to take its stage, and the most versatile and talented musician in town. He was, by all accounts, the patron saint of Dallas music. According to many, that single shot fired in the early morning of September 3, 2007, not only killed the patron saint, it took much of Dallas music went with him. Unfinished, among so many other things, were Albrecht’s solo record and the record that he and his friends in Sorta had been working on. Shortly after his death, the remaining members of Sorta went back to work to finish the album, in shock and deflated. In fact, most of Dallas's musicians seem to be in shock still. The death of such a visible and charismatic force can have any number effects. Nourallah thinks that Albrecht’s death “knocked the life out of Dallas music.” While it may be too early to tell if that's truly the case, one survivor from the loss of Carter Albrecht is Sorta’s finest record to date.

Now scheduled for an October release, Sorta’s opening track, “Make a Wish”, would be right at home on a Dire Straits record. The mix allows Albrecht’s keyboard performance to stand front and center, while the bluesy guitar work provided by Christ Holt is flawless. Holt described the process of trading instruments with Albrecht, saying “Carter played keys and/or guitar on every song on the album…whatever he played guitar on, I played keys, and vice versa. We were very fortunate that he was able to nail down his parts live. Some of them might not have been what he wanted to be considered final takes, but his playing was always inspired. His scratch takes were better than most peoples’ best.”

“Grown Man” has a keyboard presence that is reminiscent of the Band. This is Sorta at its most sorrowful. When Trey Johnson sings the chorus, Albrecht’s piano takes commands attention so seamlessly that it's hard to imagine the vocalist is not the one playing. Johnson’s vocal performance is enough to make you eager with anticipation over his upcoming solo record. He finds a place somewhere between the late Warren Zevon and Jackson Browne that manages to be entirely his own. On some tracks, his tone is pure enough to be in the Farrar family.

Also not lost on this record is Sorta’s sense of humor. Examples include the song title “Bjorn Yesterday” and the sarcasm of the reproach in “Fools Gold”, when Johnson does his best David Johansson, barking, "Your heart was in it / You were just lacking direction”. It can also be found on “Poor Little Child”, the country track. With a shuffle rhythm provided by bass and drums, and a honky-tonk guitar sound, it feels right at home with lyrics like “Living on credit and getting it cheap”. Johnson sings tongue and cheek, “I have a major breakdown and a minor in Greek”. In many ways, it represents the sides of Dallas that Sorta have come to know -- the students filling the weekend clubs, the cowboys not sure what happened to their city. It is the collision between art and commerce that Salim Nourallah mourns. Sorta seems to have found the irony.

Despite the present humor, this record still reaches emotional honesty in “Afraid of the Dark” and “Always”. The latter, a love song that would not have been out of place on a Sparrows record, has some of the most foreboding guitar work on the record, all the while offering a lyric of hope. While singing optimistically, “Don’t be afraid”, the feel remains ominous. Similarly, it's too easy and maybe a little cheap to put final song “Afraid of the Dark” in the context of Albrecht’s life and death. It was, after all, written, recorded, and tracked before he was killed. Nonetheless, it is impossible to listen to Sorta without hearing ghosts. And nowhere is that more prevalent than the record's closing song. Possibly a father’s song to his son, he lectures not to be afraid of the dark. In a quieter moment, he reminds himself of the same. The album closes with the refrain “Oh it’s over”, and, according to just about everyone you ask, it is.

If the true test of art lies in its honesty, then the men of Sorta are indeed artists. Without the prologue of Albrecht’s tragic loss, the awareness of the record being Sorta’s curtain call, or any other context, this record is still a beautiful testament to the talent of some of Dallas’s most prized musicians. If indeed it is over, it has ended on the perfect note.

Rock and roll recovered from the day the music died. The lives of those lost talents found their way into Elvis’s hips, Levon’s drumming, and Townsend’s windmill. Carter Albrecht’s impact will live on, too. His solo record will be released in 2009 (which Balis describes as the best record any Dallas musician has ever made), and forthcoming projects include solo records by Danny Balis and Trey Johnson, as well as session work from Ward Williams and Chris Holt’s upcoming follow-up to Wishful Sinking, a Slack record. With its patron saint now gone, what will become of Dallas’s music scene remains in question. Carter Albrecht’s place in its under-appreciated past is not.

Photo by Hal Samples

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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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