Remember back in the early '60s, when folklorists Alan Lomax and Sam Charters discovered that some of the great bluesmen of the late '20s and early '30s Sleepy John Estes and Skip James, for example were still alive? When you hear the music of Jolie Holland, that's what you might think of it's as if she's some long-lost singer who years ago faded into backwoods obscurity, only to be rediscovered last year with the release of her timeless 78s.
Picture it: The scholars analyzing the dusty recordings as part of some ethnomusicology
study only to discover can it be true? that the singer is still
alive. They leave the city and search the hill country where she is reported
to be living and find her, alive and well, in a rundown, termite-infested shack.
These days she works as a waitress on the weekends and as a maid weekdays to
make ends meet. It's been years since she's performed live, decades since she
was last in a recording studio.
But guess what? Her voice is just as strong as it was when those 78s were cut those decades ago. And now that they've found this great lost singer who stands with one foot in the past and the other in the present, gazing towards the future what do they do? Why, take her out to California to record a new album.
Of course, none of that is true. Jolie Holland is from Houston, Texas, and there is no collection of rare 78s, but rather an album, Catalpa, of lo-fi recordings made early last year in her San Francisco apartment. Initially, she had 100 copies manufactured, and sold them off her Web site and at shows; late last year Epitaph's Anti label re-released Catalpa to international acclaim.
And now her new album, her first real album, one she made in a real recording studio (same one where Tom Waits recorded his last two albums), Escondida, is here. The songs were written recently, not in the 1920s. And she is not yet 30 years old.
But there's no disputing how old-timey Holland sounds. The first few notes on her Catalpa debut come through the speakers like a ghost, muffled and haunting; she has a voice unlike any you've have heard. It's eerie and unsettling, but familiar like an ancestral photograph. She sounds as distant as much of the Anthology of American Folk Music, and yet there is an intimacy to her songs. This is a singer/poet who really feels things. And this is the new, weird America, and Holland is singing its woes with a wisdom far beyond her age.
Holland bridged the gap between old-time and new-time with her debut. On those songs she sings and plays with the innocence of an uncorrupted mountain woman. Still, on the first track, "Alley Flowers," she rhymes "bioluminescence" with "psychedelic presence," words
not commonly regarded as part of the folk fabric. A tambourine shakes behind
her like chain-gang ghosts, and Holland sings soft in a voice that is by turns
as classy as Billie Holiday and as country as June Carter.
Escondida opens just as auspiciously, but with greater clarity. "Sascha," a broken-hearted ballad, shows her ability to seamlessly blend jazz, pop, blues and country like her idol Willie Nelson. "Oh tonight, my heart is full of a sad song/ My lonesome lover has taken off," she sings in her Karen Dalton drawl. On one non-lyric verse, Holland's moan echoes a departing train, smoothly fading into a French horn solo, a testament to her talent as a singer.
Overall, Escondida is a jazzier album than Catalpa. Perhaps it's the addition of a band, or it could simply be what was inspiring her at the time of the recording sessions. And Holland seems perpetually inspired. The music cannot be released quickly enough to suit her muse. Even Escondida's song selection seems barely labored over. She is Neil Young, choosing the passionate takes over the refined. "Black Stars" seems made up on the spot, and "Darling Ukulele" is more of the playful ad-libbing she offered on Catalpa's "Demon Lover Improv."
But this spontaneity is the essence of Jolie Holland. Take a listen to her cover of "Mad Tom of Bedlam," where the words hardly make sense through her own vocal improv. Backed only by a set of brush-and-mallet drums, Holland more than compensates for the band's absence. You'll swear you hear traces of trumpet, bass and guitar, but it's only her. And you'll marvel at how she channels the jumping pulse of a full band. Hearing the lack of restraint in her voice on this track, you may wonder if she is shackled by a rhythm section as well.
Though we know her "too many cooks in the kitchen" reason for leaving the Be
Good Tanyas, the Canadian band she co-founded, Holland seems so free-spirited
that it's difficult to picture her in a sewing circle, let alone a folk group. Escondida's
centerpiece, "Goodbye California," closely resembles her peppier country-folk
work on that band's Blue Horse LP. "I feel like a liar and a thief/ For
taking air, for being here," she sings, so breezy that it seems she is not so
much singing as letting her heart and soul breathe.
She is an anomaly, this singer. She can evoke scenes, she has an untamed jambalaya-rose-petal twang, she sounds fresh, old and not quite human all at once. Like no other, she haunts you mid-day.
Escondida's closing track "Faded Coat of Blue" has imbued in me an image that I cannot shake. Opening with the bare trumpet of "Taps," Holland eases into the fallen-soldier number. This grieving narrator unfolds the story of a young man's untimely death and then, signaling his ascendance to heaven, a fiddle sounds a few funereal notes. It sounds distant and comes through the speakers as if off one of those old 78s. I see Holland in a plain dress, watching from a hillside across the hollow. The casket is lowered into the ground atop the hill. I see Holland drying her tears, alone.