Julia Holter albums
Women in rock n roll have taken the 21st century by force for sure, and at the top of the list is Julia Holter. Her records Tragedy and Ekstasis are definitely works of art, like watercolor paintings drawn on a canvas in space, they challenged the very notion of what a ‘song’ is in modern music. Her 2013 record Loud City Song, while not selling out in any way shape or form, dares to make her music accessible, not too different than what Sister did for Sonic Youth or what, say, ElectricLarryland did for a wild band like Butthole Surfers. She has her detractors, as some say she is too weird for her own good and some say she is not weird enough (you can’t please everybody) and they would have you believe that Ms. Holter is trying to achieve the kind of fame of a pop diva like Madonna but the truth is far from it. Holter is the epitome of singer-songwriter for the 2010’s and beyond, and there is so much existential yearning within Holter’s music and no matter how accessible it gets, it always teeters on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
Julia Holter – Vocals, Piano
Devin Hoff – bass
Chris Speed – saxophone
Andrew Tholl – violin
Kenny Gilmore and Corey Fogel– percussion
Christopher Votek – cello
Danny Meyer – saxophone, clarinet
Best Album: Loud City Song
Jane Siberry, Kate Bush, Enya, Magnetic Fields, Cocteau Twins, Robert Wyatt, Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos, Meredith Monk
2011 – (3.5 / 5) – Tragedy
2012 – (4.5 / 5) – Ekstasis
2013 – (5 / 5) – Loud City Song
2015 – (4.5 / 5) – Have You in My Wilderness
2018 – (4.5 / 5) – Avairy
Tragedy – (3.5 / 5)
Holter’s debut album is about as uncompromising as a piece of music can be, unafraid to announce herself as a true artist. Some people surely found this to be pretentious and meandering upon release, as more than half of these songs are over seven minutes long, others will find it to be fascinating. Frankly I don’t think Holter cares what people think, as she is just unleashing her stream-of-consciousness style soundscapes upon the world, and that is something I admire her for. I view Tragedy as a very solid EP worth of ideas drawn out to an album worth of material at fifty minutes (about twenty five of those minutes are very intriguing). There is an intro and an interlude in the middle that serve no real purpose other than to split the album into sections; they could have easily been silence. The album does hold a unique place in the 2010’s though, bridging the elegance of New Age artists such as Enya and Suzanne Ciani with the atmospheric singer songwriters of rock history. The Influence of Jane Siberry, Kate Bush, Lida Husik, and Cat Power can all be heard throughout the record.
Opener “Try to Make Yourself a Work of Art” is the best song on the record, as everything else can be seen as offshoots of this song with its pounding drums and repetitive mantra are very empowering to hear and the last part of the song is devoted to a tremendous ambient keyboard section. “Goddess Eyes” is the closet to a normal song as a robotic woman repeats the chorus “I can see you but my eyes are not allowed to cry” ad nauseum and it works because it is so different than anything else on the record. “Celebration” opens with the sounds of a recorder, distorted and far away, but quickly morphs into a piano led galloping tune with whimpering vocals that struggle to stay above water. “Finale” is similar, as the song crescendos into a kind of madness this that is simultaneously baffling and entrancing. “So Lilies” is possibly the best song on the second half, as a danceable groove sustains it and the vocal counterpoint is more percussive than lyrical (which I’m sure was the point). In all, for a debut album Tragedy points to an artist that has unlimited potential and the adventurous rock listener may just find it to be a fascinating album to dream to.
Greatest Songs: Try to Make Yourself a Work of Art, Goddess Eyes, So Lillies
Ekstasis– (4.5 / 5)
While far from being mainstream music, Julia Holter’s second record is more coheisve than the last. This still means the reverb-psych vocals are turned up all the way, and the structures of the songs are all over the map (not a lot of verse-chorus-verse happening here), but the melodies are more confident as Holter seems to have found her style within the domain of new age singer-songwriters. “In the Same Room” and “Fur Felix” still sound homemade and fragile but carry with them tunes that are hummable enough to stand the test of time (much like the synth heave pure pop of Magnetic Fields in the early 1990’s). The longer, multi structure “Marienbad” and oriental flavored “Four Gardens” are even more impressive accomplishments, packing in as many memorable melodies as her debut album had in its entirety into one song.
These songs all have a very childlike quality and also a sense of adventure that is as intriguing as they are palpable. Her greatest song yet is the eight minute plus epic “Boy in the Moon”, that is a miniature rock opera, a song that starts by tantalizing the listener with an out-of-control singer that soon whose many ideas and voices are churned into a black hole by the songs ending. The harmless “Moni Mon Amie” exists not to deter one’s attention but probably could have been cut for efficiency, while as much as I like “Goddess Eyes” from the first album it is repeated on the end of the album two times and is questionable as a whole as shows perhaps a lack of confidence in her more stellar material (it could be argued that “Goddess Eyes II” is the best out of the three versions of the song though). The closer sums the album up well though, as the title track is a mixture of traditional folk music fused with Holter’s disjointed psychedelic nursery rhymes, betraying a bit of a 90’s Scott Walker avant-garde influence. In all, Ekstasis is a tremendous step forward in the procedure of how to portray artistic yearning and anguish on record.
Greatest Songs: Boy in the Moon, Fur Felix, Marienbad, Four Gardens
Loud City Song – (5 / 5)
What is noticeable about Holter’s 3rd record is she seems to be at peace the demons that haunted her on the first two records. She is at once more focused as a songwriter as well as being a more confident singer, able to command a song with little accompaniment or band to back her up. Inspired by the 1950’s novel and Oscar winning film Gigi, the album has a story and structure to it that is the opposite end of the abstractness of her debut, Tragedy. “World” is a nearly acappela track that makes for a perfect opener for her album and mindset. “Maxim One” is a haunting piece where Holter’s vocals pierce the soul of the listener but then heals them by a brilliant touch of violin; “Horns Surrounding Me” brings the rock n’ roll influence for a rare occasion, echoing Kate Bush at her most alluring; “In the Green Wild” flirts confidently with beatnik jazz delivery and sparse instrumental accompaniment and whispering its chorus before doing a 180 degree shift effortlessly into a melodic style that is uniquely her own. These songs constitute Julia Holter’s best four-song suite yet and make it an album experience.
Even if the remainder of the record was a failure, that would still be an impressive feat. But the remainder is very good as well: a cover of Barbara Lewis’s “Hello Stranger” drifts in a daze of wonderment and longing that she has perfected on her first two records while closer “City Appearing” is another psychedelic experience to top all that she has done before; a shout out to bass player Devin Hoff from Xiu Xiu, whose playing on this record is another high point. “Maxim’s II” deconstructs her song of choice even more, kind of just proving this is an artist capable of anything and there is no border just coloring outside the lines. “He’s Running through my Eyes” is a short but touching stream of consciousness that feels, again, like a concise version of a song on her first record. Only “This is a True Heart” strikes me as a minor tune, and I usually find myself just listening to that as well as I drift along. As women out do their male musical counterparts in about every way in the 2010’s, Julia Holter’s transformation into a kind of futuristic vocal savant is all the more glorious and meaningful, and Loud City Song is her masterwork. So far.
Greatest Songs: In the Green Wild, Horns Surrounding Me, City Appearing, Maxim’s I
Have You in My Wilderness – (4.5 / 5)
This album gets even closer to approachable then her previous masterpiece, 2013’s Loud City Song. While Holter will more than likely never fall into generic pop music or become accessible to the mainstream, she succeeds in remaining a valuable singer-songwriter for our time. In a different way then her obvious contemporary, Joanna Newsom, she can portray emotions through oblique soundscapes that are out of reach for other artists of her generation. She may be more Jane Siberry than Kate Bush at this point as well, as she aims higher and reaches deeper than most people would dare too. While many of the tracks are aimed to attract new listeners (opener and lead single “Feel You” is actually catchy, and perhaps creates her most carefree tune yet with “Everytime Boots”) she remains impenetrable except for those that dare to rise to her level.
Half of the songs on this album aren’t even anchored to a rhythmic beat at all; they just sort of drift along in the ether. “How Long?” is almost agonizing as is drifts along at its slow pace, while “Lucette Stranded on the Island” has perhaps her most beautiful repetitive climax yet. “Betsy On the Roof” is the most complex composition, remaining entertaining despite its many vocal embellishments, and maybe my favorite song of hers. There is so much existential yearning within Holter’s music and no matter how accessible it gets, it always teeters on the edge of a nervous breakdown. ”Sea Calls Me Home” meshes all of Holter’s attributes so far into a haunting sea shanty with a killer saxophone solo! If she falters on a couple of songs (“Vasquez” is maybe too aimless and “Night Song” is a little redundant), the approach still works wonders on tunes that are sublimely beautiful, and that fact alone ranks her among the great experimental composers of our time.
Greatest Songs: Betsy on the Roof, Everytime Boots, Sea Calls Me Home, Lucette Stranded on the Island
Aviary – (4.5 / 5)
For anyone expecting a further adventure into pop music territory for Holter, this album will come as a shock. At 90 minutes and 15 songs, it is a statement of complete absurdity. Stranger and more abstract then even her debut Tragedy, the album is a challenge to say the least. For those up for it, Avairy is very rewarding listen, requiring some time investment to truly unravel. There is still an element of catchy tunes in the singles “Words I Heard”, the jovial “I Shall Love pt Two”, and the bouncing “Whether”, but they are more like invitations to lure you into the darkness. Most of the material on Aviary is dense, labyrinth and quite the sonic journey. It’s a bold career move, if nothing else.
The majority of the songs on the record extend the six minute mark, but among the more memorable is the pulsating “Underneath the Moon” with is keyboard churning rhythm, “Voce Simul” with its beautiful overlapping vocals, “Another Dream” with its use of mysterious atmosphere, and “In Gardens’ Muteness” incorporates expert piano playing as a minimal accompaniment, echoing Joanna Newsom and her most soulful, succeeding in being a classical music composition. Closing track “Why Sad Song” is oblique in the best sense of the word. It should be reiterated too, that Holter has mastered the craft of over-lapping vocals to create psychedelic atmospheres, as well as The Cocteau Twins before her, and tunes such as “Words I Heard” and “I Shall Love pt. 2” are a joy to behold. “I Would Rather See” defines epic songwriting, in whatever genre you want to contain it in, the song is truly a timeless creation, a tune that Enya or Sinead O’Conner would be proud to call their own.
There are challenges that extend less successfully into abstract songcraft- The eight minute “Everyday is an Emergency” is pure avant-garde drifting, hardly even a melody to be found and the ending is much more intriguing then the beginning, and perhaps “Colligere” and “Chaitus” use silence and nonsense too freely as there has to be some content to what makes a song entertaining. “Les Jaux to You” is a song that starts well, but the abrupt shift in tone half way through is to jarring to work fully. On a 90 minute album, it is more important to make the listeners time worth while, and not every song on here succeeds. But the successes outweigh the failures, and it is hard to criticize an album to harshly that is so inventive and risk taking, especially compared to bland pop music of the era. Taking the best two-thirds of Aviary is perhaps Holter’s grandest album though, and that is a point (like the majority of double albums on the market) that is hard to argue with.
Best Songs: “Underneath the Moon”, “I Shall Love pt Two”, “In Gardens’ Muteness, “I Would Rather See”, “Words I Heard”