Jolie Holland: “The Living and the Dead”

Is that a pirate with whom Jolie Holland is flirting on the cover of her fourth album, The Living and the Dead? It’s unclear, but it certainly appears that way. And she always seemed so well-adjusted! Jolie, we hardly knew ye.

Of course, she always did seem like she belonged to another era, so maybe it’s not too surprising to see her taking up with some anachronistic sea dog. When last we heard from her, on 2006’s wonderful Springtime Can Kill You, Holland was sitting in a sepia-toned parlor room, some time in the late 1930s or early 40s, sipping tea and making beautiful music with the ghosts of country, jazz, folk, and pre-WWII pop. But if that album seemed like it was made for a particular bygone era, her latest album feels altogether out of time, at once nostalgic and forward-looking without ever sounding like it belongs to any particular time or place or genre. Here, Holland abandons all pretenses and all fears and simply goes with her cut, loosening up and venturing into territory she’s never dared to venture before and coming up with one hell of a killer album in the process.

In fact, Holland follows her muse down so many strange paths that it’s hard, at first, to figure out just what’s going on here. The press release calls this Holland’s rock and roll album, which is true to a certain extent, as she does plug in for some driving, Neil Young-styled country-rock, but it’s also a bit of a red herring, as it only represents part of what this album accomplishes. Holland is still neck-deep in ghostly rememberances of American music past, which rattle through this recording with teasing hints of country and blues and parlor songs, but, unlike her last album, it doesn’t feel like it’s attempting to recreate a particular time so much as it borrows, indiscriminately, from whatever sounds and styles seem right for the songs. It’s a winding, organic song cycle that unfolds very naturally even as it goes off on odd tangents, and, at just ten songs, its brevity helps it to pack a mighty wallop, even as its loose, laid-back aesthetic affords Holland the chance to make her most expansive and unclassifiable statement yet. It’s actually rather remarkable just how much ground she covers in a relatively short span; producer Shanzad Ismaily, an accomplished experimental musician in his own right, brings an ethnic flair to the droning, bluesy folk of “Fox in a Hole,” while drummer Rachel Blumberg does some knotty, fluid timekeeping on the rock numbers while also laying down a steady, finger-popping pulse to the smoldering “Your Big Hands.” And on one of the album’s best songs, “Sweet Loving Man,” a rugged violin injects a little country boogie into the bluesy finger-picking, tying Holland’s musical past and present together and making it clear that this record isn’t a departure– it’s an expansion.

A couple of ace guitarists– indie hero M. Ward and Tom Waits sideman Marc Ribot– show up to help Holland flesh out her knotty guitar rock and hypnotic acoustic numbers, but her talent is far too great to be eclipsed by her supporting crew. She remains one of the finest singers working today, savoring her words like candy and letting them slip out slowly through her sultry Texas drawl, her phrasing equal parts jazz and country. She even proves that she can disappear deep into the grooves of her rock songs, in particular “Palmyra,” with zeal and abandon. But it’s the songs that matter most, and here she sounds positively liberated by the warmth and spontaneity of these recording sessions, writing lyrics that feel like natural extensions of the music. Holland’s muse has always led her to the intersection of love, lust, and longing, and this album presents still another tangled web of human relationships. She walks the streets of Austin with a drug addict, mourning his addiction and wishing she could be a better friend. She packs her boxes and leaves her lover far behind, charting a course “straight through Hell,” then later pens a bewitching, seductive plea for her “Sweet Loving Man” that’s as delicate and beautiful as anything she’s ever recorded. She’s equally adept at sharply-observed storytelling (“Corrido Por Buddy”) and impressionistic poetry (“Fox in a Hole”), and songs filled with melodrama and religious imagery (“Mexico City”) sit comfortably beside intimate sketches and love songs (“Sweet Loving Man”).

In some ways, it’s less complicated than the last album, which weaved together a complex series of metaphors and images to create a very cyclical, organic work. There isn’t as much inter-locking cohesion between these songs, but, if anything, that works out for the better, as these songs all feel very fully-formed, each one superbly crafted and uncommonly graceful. Holland has a real economy with language, communicating a lot without using too many words, and her work here presents a series of vivid portraits. There’s a surprising range of emotions in any given track– note how “Sweet Loving Man” is a bewitching combination of affection, flirtatiousness, doubt, and weariness, or how vividly Holland sets the scene and creates a mood in “Mexico City,” in which Jack Kerouac and Edie Parker show up to add an additional layer of ghostliness to an already haunting and haunted song of brokenness and raw desire. Indeed, the whole album feels haunted, both by ghosts and by humanity itself, making this still another disarmingly beautiful and spooky act of poetry and art from Holland.

It’s serious business, mining so deeply the depths of addiction and loneliness, but that doesn’t prevent Holland from having a good time; she half-sings, half-giggles her way through the closing cover of “Enjoy Yourself,” something that it’s hard to imagine her doing on Springtime. Indeed, though her music has always possessed an appealing rough, ragged quality– some of the tracks on the last album felt more like sketches than carefully-considered songs– this is the first time she’s ever thrown herself into the music and allowed herself to let loose quite so much. These songs are as pliable and organic that, when Holland throws in a hushed, spooky reading of the ancient murder ballad “Love Henry,” it sounds very much of a piece with the rest of the record.

It’s that level of comfort and ease that ultimately makes this not just one of the year’s finest recordings, but the high watermark of Holland’s career thus far. Not only does it find her expanding her musical horizons, but it finds her doing it with a level of conviction, a spirit of cheerful good humor, and a feeling of spontaneity that previous works only hinted at. And though she’s still banging around with ghosts of Americana from days of yore, and though the albums brevity and directness are relics from the classic era of pop and rock music, this is music that thrives and moves in the present, full of energy and messy humanity and creativity that knows no limit. It’s a thrilling and addictive listen that’s lived-in an alive, and the level of mystery and intrigue that it packs into its slight frame isn’t just impressive– it’s downright astounding.

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2 responses to “Jolie Holland: “The Living and the Dead””

  1. David Kern says :

    Nice review!

    Love this album, one of my favorites of 2008 to be sure. Right up there with Son Lux and Ezra Furman. So far.

    Thanks for writing.

    And as a fellow Charlottean, I hope you are finding the Queen City to your satisfaction.

  2. Jolie Holland says :

    Dear Josh, Thank you for the great review! Super insightful…you really make me feel understood! The guy on the cover with me is my brother, and I was totally not flirting with him, obviously. He liked being called a pirate–that was also really insightful on your part. He is a sailor who used to work on the clearwater, a tall ship in the Hudson, and he was also a sailor on the New York based artist Swoon’s seven art ships that sailed down the Hudson. His handle is “Bobby Dangerously,” and he’s an adventurer of the highest order. Sam Parton, of the be good tanyas took that picture at a tiny party at my tiny Brooklyn apartment.
    Thanks for the great writing
    Take care

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