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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

My Brightest Diamond: "A Thousand Shark's Teeth"

Re-listening to My Brightest Diamond's debut, Bring Me the Workhorse, in anticipation of this album would be like setting myself up for disappointment. It is for that reason that I made sure to steer clear of the album that effortlessly made it into my Top 5 Albums of 2006, and could be considered nothing less than one of the best female solo albums of the past decade. Of course, Asthmatic Kitty and Shara Worden herself often shy away from calling My Brightest Diamond a solo project. There are, after all, other musicians on the album, and Shara never does tour alone. But when your front woman is also your only songwriter, vocalist, arranger, and even shares production credit on the entire album, the whole "band" facade starts to seem a bit silly.

That's part of what makes A Thousand Shark's Teeth so surprisingly wonderful. At its heart, this is an album conceived by, written, and made through one woman. The fact that it is so diverse, so dense and intriguing is nothing short of miraculous! Forget imminent disappointment, this album completely shatters any bleak expectations I may have had about it. From the very start, with the familiar sounds of a brooding composition and sliding electric guitars, I knew I was in for something special. "Inside a Boy" is very much like the album-opener before it, "Something of an End." And why not? There is no better way to ease fans into a completely new experience than by giving them something familiar to hook them. And what a beautiful song to begin this journey! Shara sings in her trademark operatic style, "In his arms I'm unwinding/ Under his kiss I am falling into love," the last word emphasized by an out of the blue deep minor chord that will put the fear of God into many an unsuspecting listener!

"Ice & the Storm" follows in much the same vein as its predecessor, with a darkly catchy chorus ("I want a storm to blow it out/ I want to shake myself and turn my heart inside out") and familiar instrumentation. It is not until "If I Were Queen" that fans are given something remotely "new" to listen to. This short, minimalist song features little more than Shara singing acapella with the occasional string orchestration to remind you that there's something worth listening to here. When Shara swoons "...ah close by" over the orchestration, I can't help but picture some sort of Alice In Wonderland-esque scene, albeit one performed by a medieval chorus.

The album continues careening into controlled chaos, with the undeniably weird "Apples," whose muted marimba is one of the coolest-sounding instruments that can be found on the album. Shara's vocals are just as strange. Singing about doing laundry, she explores the highs and lows of her range with a peculiar melody that will be enchanting to some, off-putting to others. "From the Top of the World" slows the pace down, and finds Shara nurturing her admitted love for Radiohead. The chord progressions and pace of this song just remind me of something that Thom Yorke & Co. could have written, but she makes sure to add in enough string instrumentation to keep it fresh and exciting. "Black and Coustaud" is Worden at her most frightening, with dark, looming string instrumentation completely overpowering her compressed vocals, which are just as often yelled or spoken in French as they are sung. The bassoon is particularly frightening, as is Shara's shyly-spoken line of "Punch your nose," told like a secret too good to keep to herself. The French lyrics ("aver ma voix je marm'lad toi") translate to "With my voice I turn you into marmalade," which for any other artist would seem a bit half-baked. For My Brightest Diamond, it's oddly appropriate.

By far though, the most impressive track on A Thousand Shark's Teeth has to be "To Pluto's Moon" a nearly 7-minute long song that uses every second to great effect. Starting with solemn swells of strings and Shara's moving vocals, it eventually transforms into a mildly grooving, albeit sullen pop song. She sings in the chorus, "Why did you go like this?/ I slam against the wall/ It's crushing my skull/ Why did you go like this?." The lyrics are absolutely beautiful, about chasing someone or something to the end of the solar system, and who can't relate to the feeling of being left behind? It is this album's version of "Gone Away," but it surpasses that song in almost every way imaginable.
All of this is a step forward for Worden who spent most of her time on Bring Me the Workhorse singing about childhood memories and dead or dying animals. A Thousand Shark's Teeth is, for the most part, about relationships. Yet one has to wonder whether these tales are pure fiction or somehow based on Worden's personal experiences. Surely they are too separated from reality to be taken as literal stories, but if meant to be symbolic or poetically introspective, they are easily some of the most impressive lyrics in recent memory. They're just as unique as Workhorse's, though much more relatable. The biggest change on this album is Worden exposing her more theatrical side, be it in the grandiose arrangements, the small inflections in her voice, or simply the collection of pictures for which she poses in the CD booklet. The end result is an album that - as surprising as it may be - surpasses Bring Me the Workhorse on so many different levels that I can't help but love every second of it! Believe it or not, Shara Worden has somehow managed to starve off disappointment with A Thousand Shark's Teeth. Maybe next time...

Key Tracks:
1. "Inside a Boy"
2. "Ice & the Storm"
3. "Black & Coustaud"
4. "To Pluto's Moon"
5. "Bass Player"

9 out of 10 Stars

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