Lion of Panjishir was once the moniker that actress, songwriter, and active member of the wonderful L.A. Ladies Choir Ariana Delawari used to perform under as a solo artist. It is now the title of her debut solo recording issued on the David Lynch MC imprint. The title refers to the Afghani revolutionary leader Ahmed Shah Massoud. She, guitarist Max Guirand, and violinist Paloma Udovic (who are both here), traveled to Afghanistan and played with the Ustads (master musicians); a number of them appear here. When they returned to the States the band became a recording project of various L.A. musicians, fronted by Delawari They include violinist and violist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, bassist Robert Francis, drummer Joachim Cooder , and ubiquitous producer Carlos Nino, who offers his assistance on a few numbers.
Delawari wrote or co-wrote everything on Lion of Panjishir. She has used her origins to make a seemingly timeless album that will likely sound as compelling in a decade as it does now. While she has been associated with the whole freak-folk scene, her music is far wider-ranging than that. This is "big vision" music, with an intimate imprint, even when it gets raucous. Check the opener "San Francisco," a rocker fueled by Guirand's snarling guitar. It namechecks Janis Joplin, touches on nostalgia, the gift to her from seals, and it captures musical spirits of present and past. Jabari Parker's upfront drumming and the overdriven pulse of Be Hussey's bassline get the whole thing into the red without losing its melodic center. "Her Legacy" is, in many ways, a mirror image of that track in that it concentrates itself around Delawari's poignant, even uncomfortable lyric, and her infectious minor-key melody that holds the instruments in check, even if they occasionally rip free. The string arrangement by Atwood-Ferguson is nearly sublime.
"Be Gone Taliban" is not some trendy, of-the-moment political anthem. Underscored by the hand drums of the Afghani Ustads and Cooder's trap kit, Delawari spits her vocal from a place of longing and displacement, as well as defiance and righteous anger. The strings by Udovic and Atwood Ferguson pull this out of the rock spectrum -- even if it does rock -- and into the troubled place of its origin; it feels haunted by the ghosts of the vanquished as well as the living hearts of the Afghani people, all through the grin in Delawari's voice. There are some beautiful folk songs here, such as "Cheshme Siah Daree," with both English and Afghani lyrics; it's played as a duet with Giurand and Delawari on harmonium and acoustic guitar, respectively. The more Afghan-flavored tunes such as "The East," "Singwind," and a couple of others arise from the natural folk influences of Afghani classical music, and are infused with Delawari's modern approach as guitars, tablas, rababs, and delrubahs all fold together inseparably. The simple, American indie pop and folk-ish songs here that inhabit the end of the recording, such as "We Lived on a Whim" and "We Came Home," are drenched in tenderness, spiritual ferocity, and hungry 21st century poetry that express a sense of dislocation and a divided heart without irony or clichés. The production is simple, airy, natural, and free of artifice, allowing Delawari's voice and words to come to the listener unguarded. Lion of Panjishir showcases not only versatility, but depth, warmth, and honest emotion as well as musical sophistication. Delawari is a gifted songwriter who understands the true nature of collaboration with her equally talented friends.