Jolie Holland: Escondida
You know how the theremin, grandfather of the modern synthesizer, sounds kind of like the singing saw--an instrument as old as woodcutting? Jolie Holland's voice has that same ancient-future quality, as happily lost in the woods as in outer space. She floats so free of a beat, or even the recognizable rhythms of conversation, that calling her weird interpretations "phrasing" is like calling Jackson Pollock's paint splashes "strokes." This Texas-born singer with a mountain accent is more Björk than Billie Holiday, and more abstract than either. What few words were discernable on her 2003 debut Catalpa served mostly as suggestive clues: something about having "the shine in this world" ("the shine" in the Stephen King sense, maybe, or in the gleam of stoned eyes) and wanting to die ("I don't care how/I'm getting out").
Of course, the air of Southern mystery surrounding Holland is as calculated as the hillbillysploitation of Cold Mountain. But I'm still curious to see her in person at the 400 Bar on Saturday. Maybe because Catalpa began as a demo for friends, the circular structures and droning texture of her old-timey songs feel natural and seem original. By contrast, Holland's follow-up, a "proper" studio debut, feels more like what you'd expect from a "Norah Jones for cool people" (in the immortal shorthand of Q). Whatever shine there was before, I don't see it now. Maybe her problem is that she's made a fake-jazz album rather than a jazz-influenced fake-folk album. Or maybe I'm just being mean. However lazy Escondida is with hooks, however appalling the song "Old Fashioned Morphine," and however nondescript her ensemble chemistry (standout instrument: a singing saw), no comparisons quite do justice to the nearly-solo piano number "Damn Shame." Here, Holland is easily comprehensible. "Tell me one more time why you went away," she quavers. "It makes a little sense in the light of day." This is the kind of album that makes sense in the black of night.
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