By the time she issued “This Is My Hand” in 2014, Shara Worden, perhaps better known by her stage name of My Brightest Diamond, had already released three albums of meticulous and highly affecting chamber rock. In addition, she had become a valuable guest artist for the likes of David Byrne, the Decemberists and Sufjan Stevens, and was featured vocalist on Sarah Kirkland Snider’s splendid “Penelope,” a song cycle that bridged the world of contemporary classical music and intelligent indie rock. If a smart multi-artist compilation was released – the kind that paid tribute to Radiohead, for example, or was part of something as well done as the Red Hot Organization’s series – there was a good chance it included a performance by My Brightest Diamond.
But Worden confounded expectations with “This Is My Hand.” Though no less intelligence than her previous work, it was inspired by her desire to make people move more so than to think. She was influenced by, all of things, marching bands, finding herself enthralled by the music at a Thanksgiving Day parade in her hometown of Detroit where the attendees reacted with jubilation to the sound and rhythm. To her acute mind, it was music that was essential to community spirit. Though she never recorded her compositions for marching bands, her affection for the percussion, the brass and the joy of sharing music stayed with her. New processes for composition emerged and, she told me, she tried "to subvert some of my natural tendencies toward introversion."
“This Is My Hand” opened with thunderous drums and low brass that continued to inform “Pressure,” as did flutes and a xylophone: a typically delightful Worden arrangement. Assertive rhythm ruled: Hand claps introduced the hearty powerhouse “Lover Killer,” and “Before the Words” was a virtual ode to percussion with drums, single notes on guitars and a flitting bass line, the latter by the masterly Chris Bruce. The title track kicked off with darting synthesized tones that were joined by punchy horns. Even a contemplative tune like "Looking at the Sun" was propelled by the snap of snare drums and toms. Throughout the album, Worden sang, as always, with flawless intonation and articulation, her contralto as clear as spring water.
Worden has taken a circuitous route to success in popular music. She graduated with a degree in voices from the University of North Texas, then headed off to Russia to compose before moving to New York to study opera. As the new century dawned, she wrote music for modernist theater productions. For “This Is My Hand,” Worden said she was inspired by from her exploration of what she called "pre-music," having read Daniel Levitin's "The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature," Jared Diamond's "The Third Chimpanzee" and Robert Graves's "The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of the Poetic Myth" to connect to music's primordial roots. In "Before the Words," she sang: "Before the verse there was the sound/Before the form there was music."
Worden worked closely with co-producer Zac Rae on “This Is My Hand.” While percussion and Worden’s voice dominated, a variety of sounds kept the foundation enticing and, for My Brightest Diamond devotees, surprisingly new: the raspy guitars that gave way to a cluster of flutes and warm strings in “I’m Not The Bad Guy” and the textured percussion and jazz chords on what may be synthesized guitar in “Resonance,“ with Bruce excelling once again. “Shape” explored familiar territory with the synth tones and flutes, but clattering interludes punctured the motion-filled calm.
Worden toured behind “This Is My Hand,” with an extraordinary rhythm section of Tim Mulveena on drums and Nathan Lithgow on bass. (At a show in New York, she was accompanied on one number by an 11-piece drum band.) Since its release, she issued “I Had Grown Wild,” a collection of “Hand” remixes and two new, exemplary songs. She appears on “The Fiction Issue,” the new recording by Gabriel Kehane that came out last week.
An album that satisfies mind and body, “This Is My Hand” added a touch of spice to catalogue that was an already extra-special.