Monday, October 31, 2011

ALBUM REVIEW: My Brightest Diamond - All Things Will Unwind

By Steve Jones.

My Brightest Diamond is the stage name of Detroit's Shara Worden, and All Things Will Unwind is her third LP.

I like baroque pop.  And when I say baroque, I mean baroque, as in I want my songs to sound akin to the way the interior of a 17th century church looks.  Lots of colors, flourish, details, intricacy, cherubim--and to a practically garish extreme sometimes.  Many people seem to think you can add a violin and french horn to your band and BAM you have chamber pop.  For me, however, baroque is more so about attitude than instrumentation, and All Things Will Unwind is full of great attitude.

While I did on some level appreciate Shara Worden's dark shade of art pop in her past two albums, I never found myself enjoying them a whole lot.  The music came across as too muddy and melodramatic for me to take in 40+ minute chunks.  All Things Will Unwind, on the other hand, is a welcome change of pace for Worden and for me.  The songs are much brighter, though still caustic, and the arrangements are the most diverse and most baroque that I have heard all year.  The modern chamber ensemble yMusic (who have also worked with Sufjan Stevens, Grizzly Bear, Ryuichi Sakamoto, The National, and others) give a wonderful performance which proves integral to the album's full and fun sound.

The change in direction is apparent from the first moments of the opening track "We Added It Up." A simple conversation between a steady rhythmic guitar line and the various members of the ensemble reflects the incessant back-and-forth between certain members of certain opposing political parties in a certain country.  And I cannot stress enough how smartly arranged the "extra" instruments are.  It's not quite text-setting on the level of a Schubert lied, but the instrumentation is more often than not a reflection of the subject matter.  Warm strings and tense woodwinds punctuate the struggle within the lyrics of "Reaching Through to the Other Side," which sounds the most like an older MBD song.  And if you think baroque necessarily means you have to have a lot of different things going on at once at all times, then the hymn-like "In the Beginning" should show you that ornamentation can be minimal and still just as effective.  Again, this is not necessarily complexly arranged music, but it is smartly arranged and a wonderful complement to the always impressive and distinctive vocals of Shara Worden.

My Brightest Diamond's songs have always resided more on the "art" side of "art pop," but the much brighter sounds to be found on this album make it her most accessible foray yet.  Several songs, particularly "There's a Rat" and "High Low Middle," are evocative of older forms of popular music, such as cabaret and musical theater, and that may be a turn-off for some listeners, but I find it rather refreshing.  The highlight of the album is "Everything is in Line."  The arrangement creates tension and beauty, and the desperate duet between Worden and labelmate DM Stith is the butteriest of icing.

The performances by yMusic are simply stellar all around.  Their presence adds volumes to these songs and detracts nothing.  The only place where I feel that the instrumentation takes away a bit from the song is in the closing track, "I Have Never Loved Someone."  Worden's performance is heartachingly pretty, but she plays a pump organ.  It's actually quite nice and makes for a good album closer (a la Kid A) until you listen to it on headphones, and every squeak of the pump pedal can be heard loud and clear.  It's not so noticeable on ordinary speakers, and I can appreciate it as an artistic decision that adds to the intimacy of the piece, but I found it pretty distracting.  Still, it should say something when a small squeak is my biggest issue with the music.

All Things Will Unwind is just a gorgeous album full of colorful strings and woodwinds, powerful vocals, and an overall affecting tone.  There seems to be an attitude that richly arranged music like this is somehow less "authentic" than your typical 4 piece band, but that is pure bullshit.  If you are a fan of Owen Pallett's Heartland, Simon Bookish's Everything/Everything, or classical music in general, you will find a lot to enjoy in this album, which is one of the most beautiful, most diverse, and most interesting of the year.

Score: Strong 8/Lite 9

Listen to the entire album courtesy of the awesomeness that is Bandcamp, and let me know what you think in the comments!

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