Various Artists: California Dreamin'

Maurice Bottomley

Various Artists

California Dreamin'

Label: Milan
US Release Date: 2002-03-24

A disturbingly high proportion of 2002's myriad downtempo, chill-out or lounge compilations have a distinct aroma of the late '60s and early '70s to them. Like the perfume from a joss-stick, there is an unmistakable, not neccesarily pleasant but undeniably evocative,retrospection about much of the music. This is particularly the case where the deep house or nu-jazz components are secondary to a more "Rock Music after Massive Attack" vibe.

On such sets, and California Dreamin is in its early stages one of these, it is hard not to find oneself reminded of art college bed-sits, purple loon trousers and record collections that included Pearls Before Swine and Dr. Strangely Strange alongside the more obvious Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull. This image is in this case prompted by some actual, ancient referencing but is more pervasive than simply the odd quote or updated version of half-forgotten psychedelic classics. The New Age Ambience this album (successfully) engenders has a lot of decidedly Old Age trimmings.

For all the post-modernity of its samplings,for all the state of the art digital beats, this (horizontally) laid-back mix is the contemporary equivalent of making a tape up of a few softer, more introspective tracks from a number of "progressive or "underground" albums circa 1971. Moreover, mystery of mysteries, it mostly works very well indeed. I have to say that my tastes draw me much more to the later soulful or jazz-inflected sections, but as a sustained exercise in relaxed atmospherics it is a winner. Compiler/mixer David Ireland has acted with great expertise and no little nuance.

Let's get the more obvious borrowings out of the way first, as they both triggered this backward-looking fantasy and remain the more troublesome aspects to the mix. The main culprits are Waldeck, The Azul Project and Lemongrass -- although the Mike Oldfield sensibility surrounding some of the material needs to be noted also.

Waldeck has a singer (not the world's most gifted) lugubriously intoning "I Talk to the Wind". Grandparents among you will remember this from King Crimson's first album (for some baffling reason still highly regarded, or so I am informed). This is very hard to take and comfortably the weakest of three covers, although the other two have their difficulties. For example, The Azul Project serve up "Ain't No Sunshine", a wonderful song but one certainly in need of a long vacation. Unlike Waldeck, their rendition of a "standard" is rather more appealing.

What they do is perform the tune as one would imagine the Zombies might have done in their late phase. Indeed, the singer does a more than passable Colin Blunstone impression. This wrests the tune from both Withers and its less pleasant karaoke trappings to duly reinforce our kaftans and sandalwood scenario. Similarly, Coldcut's take on "Autumn Leaves" (of all things) would seem to lead us into pastures jazz but, despite its broken beats arrangement and "Ghetto Heaven " sample, is sung in that Beth Orton-ish folk-jazz style whose emotional origins are as much '70s singer-songwriter as nouveau West London.

Add the cringeworthy eastern mysticism of the spoken voice on the otherwise perfectly lovely, string-soaked "Planet Tears" by Lemongrass plus the Steve Howe-Art Rock guitar on Peter Benisch's "Skymming" and we should be in deep trouble. Somehow we are not. The prevailing ethereal mood (and like all chill-out selections the mood is all) is oddly captivating and truly relaxing.By the time the more fluid and less prog-inflected tracks arrive the awkwardness of some of the hippy-trappings has largely been forgiven.

Then in the middle of the set comes Lisa Shaw, who as everyone knows can do no wrong. "Should Have Known Better", her collaboration with the estimable Rae and Christian, was a highlight even by her standards and gently nudges the music towards more soulful territory.This is followed by Charles Webster and Terra Deva's very post-Bristol sounding "Ready" from Webster's recent album. Another downtempo (if rather abstract) piece of neo-soul that takes us further into jazz-fusionist waters. If you can cope with the downright peculiar lyric and singing on Shantel's "Believe" then the second half of the album is both funkier (in a very, very discreet fashion) and slightly (very slightly) more club-familiar than the first.

I have talked mostly about the vocal tracks but three of the purely instrumental tracks deserve mention. Amalgamation of Soundz and the Nu Mood Orchestra provide two beautifully paced nu-jazz, cinematic "etudes" while Brozza Fragg borrow from Jorge Ben to give the mix some luscious neo-bossa bounce. The engaging melodies of all three are in themselves above-par Lounge fare but sound particularly at home here. "Breeze" by Nu Mood Orchestra is the pick of the three, as well as the most jazzy (great keyboard work).

This could and should have been a dull and somewhat pretentious affair. By the way, don't read the sleevenotes first, they are very silly and prejudicial to your enjoyment of what is a smooth as velvet journey through various of the more mellow tributaries of electronica's many faces. The movement from rock to jazz (albeit both in highly disguised and abstruse form) is one that convinces -- and those less rock-allergic than me will find the whole affair unproblematically seamless.

So, if you have a taste for the quieter reaches of times long past and a fondness for their modern equivalent then this record will soothe and (as it progresses) lazily groove you. The quality of arrangements throughout is high and if some of the songs could have been left slumbering then the music itself carries the day. An idiosyncratic, at times disconcerting and even anachronistic, selection but a worthwhile one for all that, California Dreamin' (which is much more Anglo-European than that title implies)is one of those rare chill-out affairs that actually improves after a few listens.

It may inadvertently cast you back into an era you would generally rather forget but my discomfort may well be someone else's source of pleasure and for its target youthful audience this will not even be an issue. This is left-field and downtempo in both its generic and descriptive senses and a more than adequate example of the current backlash against all things raucous and frenetic. Serene and certainly worth a try, with or without flashbacks.

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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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