Into the Great Beyond 

Distilling old sounds into something undeniably contemporary, Jolie Holland approaches heavy subjects with a transcendent touch

Distilling old sounds into something undeniably contemporary, Jolie Holland approaches heavy subjects with a transcendent touch

Jolie Holland

Escondida (ANTI- Records)

Playing Aug. 5 at Mercy Lounge

I first encountered Jolie Holland as the co-writer of the first song on the first album by The Be Good Tanyas. The Be Good Tanyas are a guilty pleasure; I know I shouldn't enjoy these Canadian women with such lovely voices singing about the "Lakes of Pontchartrain," but I can't help it. The song Holland co-wrote, "The Littlest Birds," exudes happiness. It was a surprise, then, to hear Holland's own version of it on her CD Catalpa. This was one of those homemade, "I just made this for friends and never meant it to be released" recordings. Rather than the easygoing, forward-rolling rhythm of The Be Good Tanyas, the songs move in little fits and starts, as if the singer thinks twice about every note. Underneath its murky sound, the songs on Catalpa tend toward starry-eyed optimism; "Catalpa Waltz" mixes love for a man and a city the way some Woody Allen movies double as love letters to New York. Holland has just released a proper studio album, Escondida. For all its clearer sound, these songs deal with the more somber subject matter of madness and death.

Holland spent time in Vancouver and now lives in the Bay Area, but she grew up in Texas and Louisiana. She shares proclivities with Southern musicians like Doc Watson who draw from blues, sentimental 19th century songs, jazz, and folk material with roots in the British Isles. She does "Mad Tom of Bedlam" to the accompaniment of nothing but drums played with brushes, turning it into a hot jazz number that could have fit into the soundtrack of The Triplets of Belleville. Throughout the recording, she decorates the vocal lines with melismas, which bring to mind Celtic music but also more distant Middle Eastern and Far Eastern sounds and their contemplative character. This slows the movement of lines: they don't go directly from note one to note two, but take small pauses and detours.

Adopting something like that '20s jazz sound involves a kind of young fogeyism that can run toward conceit. Holland pulls off her use of these styles, but like most artists today who draw on older music, her strongest work comes when she distills those influences into something undeniably contemporary. This occurs on "Black Stars," where Holland reduces the melody to movements within constrained intervals that approach chant. The song is a love song, but in it love is an act of self-annihilation with mystical dimensions: "When you arrived / it was as if / we both had died / and gone somewhere else.... / The fallen glory of my ego / is laid at the feet of all our purposes."

Most of the songs have as their immediate subject some aspect of a love affair, and these encounters or their aftermath vault her into transcendent states in several spots. The narrator of "Good Bye California" contemplates suicide, but this leads into a vision of union with the world: "When I'm dead and gone, / my immortal home / will hold me in its bosom / safe and cold. / No more desires / will light their fires, / or disturb my immaculate calm." The birds and beasts and fishes "will know who I am, / and our substance will expand / as part of everything."

"Faded Coat of Blue," a Civil War song, ends the CD with a vision of reuniting with a dead soldier "when the robe of white is given for the faded coat of blue."

Such intense discourse on consciousness can become lugubrious in the wrong hands. Even when Holland's songs move away from their stylistic roots, they retain an old-record sound that cloaks them in quaintness and irony and lends lightness to the proceedings. Taking on commercially archaic styles is like dressing up in old-fashioned clothes: it involves a degree of playfulness, even if you are serious about honoring the music. This dimension in Holland's sound opens up space in which she can take the risk of trying to communicate deep, emotional connections with the world.

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