Too much of a good thing can be wonderful. So one can only expect a baroque pop songstress with a bigger voice than Martha Wainwright, Fiona Apple and Kate Bush combined to blow our collective minds, right?
My Brightest Diamond consists primarily of singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Shara Worden, who previously recorded as Awry, as well as assuming the role of ‘head cheerleader’ for Sufjan Stevens‘ troupe of ‘Illinoisemakers’. For better or worse, the salient characteristic of Bring Me The Workhorse is undoubtedly Worden’s voice.
Making no attempt to hide her operatic training, Worden purrs, quivers and roars through each track effortlessly, sublimating much of the instrumentation along the way. Technically, her theatrical delivery hits all the right notes, but after a first listen, this striking feature does little to enhance the repeatability of the album.
There are some shining moments here which must be attributed to more than just good singing. Opener Something Of An End is an emotional rollercoaster in which Worden indulges in a melodic meander, in a manner not unlike Tori Amos. Speaking of Amos, the dramatic symbolism and unusual inflections on standout track Magic Rabbit are certainly also reminiscent of the redheaded songstress.
However, Worden is at her best when she settles down and goes back to basics. Rather than ‘performing’ with an array of bizarre vocal artilleries as she does throughout most of the record, Worden actually calms down and sings Gone Away, and the outcome is spine-tingling. This ethereal ballad fits Worden’s voice to a tee, as she saunters confidently through the sparsely instrumentalised track. The simple melody and rather obvious lyrics actually serve to highlight Worden’s ability to evoke a sense of vulnerability reminiscent of the likes of Nina Simone and Antony Hegarty, who are admittedly two of her biggest influences. While not quite as remarkable, deliberately slow-burning The Good & The Bad Guy follows the same recipe to great effect.
Ironically, Worden’s most recognisable qualities may also be her downfall. While her perfected vibrato and crisp enunciation lend some much-needed power and passion to the more unfussy tracks, the fact that this overt melodrama pervades the entire record is sheer overkill. Tracks such as Dragonfly and The Robin’s Jar are well-intended, being mellower in nature in an attempt to counteract the vocal acrobatics.
However, one need not be very imaginative to visualise Worden engaging in some serious facial gymnastics while performing these tracks, and herein lies the problem. While Worden’s contemporaries such as Cat Power, Joanna Newsom and Regina Spektor may not possess her range, they have mastered the art of sounding emotive yet subtle, a skill which Worden’s theatrical voice simply inhibits. When you can bring someone to the verge of tears by singing the alphabet, it’s not a good sign in a musical climate which values lack of ‘classifiability’ and stylistic eclecticism.
Worden’s classical-schooled/indie-inspired duality is evident by the combination of earnest pop sensibilities with experimental instrumentation. From guitar-driven Golden Star to the angular Freak Out, this album fuses elements of goth, baroque pop, trip-hop, and classical in terms of its production. However, everything is reduced to one-dimensionality by, you guessed it, that voice. Attempts at art-house experimentation and stylistic breadth are overshadowed by the fact that Worden can’t help but sound dramatic, a quality epitomised by the harrowing Workhorse, where an attempt at singing with relative monotony somehow ends up sounding like desperate cries for help.
All in all, Bring Me The Workhorse is an impressive debut. While not quite the female Jeff Buckley, as heralded by some critics, Worden’s raw talent is undeniable. However, she could definitely benefit from toning down those powerful pipes a notch or two, since she is clearly at her best when calm and sultry. Should she adopt Sufjan Stevens’ uncanny ability to make similar things sound different, we may have something here.