Friday, November 27, 2009

Music: My Brightest Diamond

Shara Worden, also known as My Brightest Diamond, has the voice of a siren – it’s powerful, alluring, and downright beautiful. You might have heard her on this year’s Dark Was the Night compilation with her amazing cover of “Feeling Good” or as the voice of a queen on this year’s album The Hazards of Love by The Decemberists. Next year she will be featured on David Byrne’s and Fatboy Slim's collaborative new album Here Lies Love (see below). She has also played in Sufjan Stevens backing band the Illinoismakers. Yes, she has an impressive resume of guest appearances, but that is not what makes My Brightest Diamond so great.

My Brightest Diamond’s debut album Bring Me the Workhouse, released in 2006, introduced her unique sound of classically influenced theatrical rock. The opening track “Something of an End” immediately sets the tone lyrically and musically with a dramatic and dark arrangement that leaves the listener excited and ready for more. “We Were Sparkling” has a simpler guitar led arrangement, which allows Worden to showcase her heartbreaking vocal performance. She more fully demonstrates her classical training on her second album A Thousand Shark’s Teeth, with a wider, more orchestrated sound. “Inside a Boy” showcases what Worden does best: sweeping instrumentation, powerful vocals, and a driving guitar. The short “Apples” uses surprisingly rhythmic percussion to support the kalimba and string driven song. Her songs are affecting and I would guess her albums are best listened to in a dark theater. Below she discusses her time with The Decemberists, her future plans, and more.

Have you seen, heard, or read anything that you would like to recommend to our readers (film, art, music, literature)?

So much, so much good stuff happening! Some of my favorite music shows have been The Gossip, the Punch Brothers, DM Stith, and Bob Mould all of whom I thought were fantastic!!! I just watched the movie The Fall, which I found enchanting and imaginative. I have a stack of bedside books/airplane companions including Proust’s Swann’s Way- a lifetime must, The Return of Depression Economics by Paul Kurgman, and The Creative Brain by Nancy Andreasen who studies creative genius in art and science using modern neuroscience. I need to get back Jenny Conlee (The Decemberists) her book by Ursula Le Guin entitled The Other Wind. Ursula is a Portland sci-fi fantasy writer and so Jenny has hipped me to her work and I gotta get this one finished since my Decemberists days are coming to an end soon.

You contributed vocals to The Hazards of Love and have toured with The Decemberists and Sufjan Stevens – what do you enjoy about these collaborations and how are they different from what you are used to?

Collaboration is always a way to learn something new, to break one’s patterns, or to jump out of the boxes that we put ourselves in. When I was singing with Sufjan I felt like that work was about learning to have fun in performance in a time of my life that was actually very, very sad. The music helped me find joy every day. It also allowed me to focus on being an instrumentalist without the responsibility of being a bandleader. Sufjan has the folks in his band playing a different instrument with every limb! Singing the role of The Queen in The Decemberists this year has been about movement and being much more extroverted and playful than I certainly have ever been in my own music and I have loved every minute of it.

What musicians would you love to collaborate with in the future?

I hope to work on a new project with saxophonist Colin Stetson and write a puppet opera with YMusic ensemble!

Have you started working on your third album?

I have been home so very, very little this year and since I must be at home to write, I have written nothing, but instead done a lot of drooling over guitars or keyboards or computer software while staring at my computer in my tour bus bunk.

How and why will it sound differently from your last?

It’s hard to talk about something that doesn’t exist, but in my mind, I would like to focus on working with a very small band. Since A Thousand Shark’s Teeth was such an orchestral endeavor, it was really difficult to play live with a small group and feel like I was playing the music as I had intended it. I had someone very close to me die several years ago and that is very evident in the tone of the My Brightest Diamond albums to date. I moved to Detroit this year and in general I feel much more at peace and happier in my heart now, so perhaps all of that will come out in the new music.

What is your songwriting process like?

When I am lucky, a good one will pop out from start to finish with words and chords all at once and the song is done in the time it takes you to press record or scramble to write it down fast enough. But more times than not, I will think about a story or an image for a few months and then noodle on an instrument and when the sound and the story match, then it’s anywhere from 5-10 hours to get something that feels like a song. Sometimes I revise later but not too often. I often use timbre as a way getting that first spark of a song, so I might use an alternative guitar tuning or get a new instrument or sound and that will become the basis for a new song. Tunes like “The Gentlest Gentleman” (ukulele), “Apples” (kalimba), “The Diamond” (pencils stuck in the bridge of two guitars) and “From the Top of the World” (new guitar in drop b minor tuning) all happened like that.

Are you working on anything else?

Ah! This year has been an exhausting and exhilarating whirlwind. The four Shark Remix EPs will be grouped together for a limited physical release (January 2010). In collaboration world, I was privileged to sing on David Byrne’s record Here Lies Love (release early 2010) as well as singing some songs on The Clogs new record, Lady Walton’s Garden, written by the talented Padma Newsome. This month I am finishing up recording art songs by composer Sarah Kirkland Snider called Penelope that should be released in early summer on New Amsterdam Records.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Film: Fantastic Mr. Fox

For the record, there is nothing wrong with computer animation. Pixar has proven numerous times that it’s entirely possible to create a visually spectacular work that relies solely on digital rendering. It must also be noted though that Pixar's films are kind of like brilliant gems floating in a filth encrusted ocean of churned out CGI sewage. Computer animation is becoming easier, cheaper, and more efficient and standards for animated films are becoming lower because of the output.

Then there are films like Henry Selick's Coraline and Wes Anderson's latest work, Fantastic Mr. Fox, that utilize stop motion animation. 2009 has been a year for raising the bar in the world of animation, and I give most of that credit to these two films. There is, of course more to Fantastic Mr. Fox than old-school animation techniques.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is based on Roald Dahl's classic children's book of the same title. The story follows the life of Mr. Fox, a loving father and husband whose actions are sometimes made without considering the consequences. What is probably the most amazing thing about the movie is that Anderson is able to make animal puppets seem human to a level where the viewer has no trouble sympathizing or understanding the tension between family members. Family issues have been a theme in Anderson's more recent work, and it absolutely carries over into Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Anderson's visual style also translates seamlessly into the film all the way down to the Futura Bold font and chapter titles. The world of Mr. Fox is crafted in yellows, oranges, browns, and reds. It is difficult to deny that it is absolutely beautiful to look at.

It’s important to remember that the "for children" label must be used loosely with Roald Dahl. Richard Wylde elaborated on this point in an earlier Arts Section review of "The Twits". Dahl is a fan of subtle adult humor that pairs perfectly with Anderson's clever dialogue style. Fantastic Mr. Fox never feels like Anderson is limiting his dark humor because he is catering to a younger audience. He captures all of the grittiness in Dahl's work with an ease that makes you wonder why he hadn’t made this movie already.

I honestly believe that Fantastic Mr. Fox is Wes Anderson's strongest work since The Royal Tenenbaums. It has the same cohesiveness and splendor that made The Royal Tenebaums so refreshing. The movie feels complete and approachable while still challenging the viewer and not insulting the intelligence of a younger audience. It is an incredible accomplishment for animation and a must see for everyone who simply wants to have a good time.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Music: Alvin Band

Alvin Band is comprised of Rick Alvin Schaier. That’s it. So when you hear the layers and layers of vocals on his songs, it’s all him. He’s the drummer for the group Miniature Tigers, but when he has some free time, I mean a lot free time (as he discusses below), he creates what we hear in his Lady Portrait EP and the vocal composition of Mantis Preying, which come packaged together.

Mantis Preying, which lasts about twenty-three minutes, is completely vocal – there are the occasional drums, finger snaps, and handclaps, but every melody and layer is done with Shaier’s voice. You will hear some influences; especially Animal Collective, Panda Bear, and some of The Beach Boys harmonies, but the Alvin Band is more than the sum of its parts. The first song “Temple Pressure” is about the struggles of Hebrew School – not exactly something you’ll hear on Pet Sounds. A friend of mine said he thought that “Ate” sounds like a Justin Timberlake song; it does at first, until it turns into a chorus of backing vocals that are unmistakable to this album. “Shabby Thermal” sounds like if The Beach Boys hung out with a beat boxing barbershop quartet and it’s great for it. The album ends with a surprising and beautiful medley of songs from The Phantom of the Opera that sounds strange only on paper.

The Lady Portrait EP, which lasts about twenty minutes, is more traditional in that it actually uses instruments. You’ll still hear the harmonies and vocal layers but now guitar, synthesizer, and more traditional percussion support them. Standout track “Tijuana” gives us a unique warm feeling that only summer can grant. Read below and find out why the album Schaier is currently finishing has one of the most exciting concepts ever.

Have you seen, heard, or read anything that you would like to recommend to our readers (film, art, music, literature)?

Well recently I've gotten really into these two Van Dyke Park records. One is called Song Cycle and the other is called Discover America. I’m also reading this graphic novel by Alison Bechdel called Fun Home and I’m loving it so far.

There are so many vocal layers on your songs - how much free time do you have? How long did it take you to record Mantis Preying and the Lady Portrait EP?

I have a lot of free time when I’m not on tour. If I have my vanilla chai fix in the morning I just lock myself in the band room and record all day. It took be about three months to record Mantis Preying. I mostly recorded very late at night, around midnight to six in the morning. I recorded Lady Portrait about a year before I recorded Mantis Preying. That took about two months or so.

You're the drummer of Miniature Tigers, which must be a different experience all together from the Alvin Band. What are your feelings about working in and balancing both?

I love the balance of the two. With Miniature Tigers it’s more of a social thing, going out into the world and experiencing things with my best friends. With Alvin Band it’s just creating music in the comfort zone of my house and my little world in Laguna Niguel. One thing I like is being away from recording for so long that when I get home from tour I love to record a bunch, and it feels fresh and new.

What is your songwriting process like?

The song writing process is normally the same. I don't pre-write anything. I just go into the band room and start messing around with little ideas. And keep building on them. And before long I have a verse or maybe a chorus. And then I’ll just keep doing that to different sections and then I’ll start figuring out how to put it all together.

Are you working on anything else?

I’m working on the next album, which is about done. I have about 16 songs recorded but I think it will end up having about 13 songs on it. It’s called Rainbow Road. It’s about all things Nintendo. Everything from Dry Bones to Bowser’s Castle to Wario bleaching his hair.