thu 01/10/2020

Julia Holter, Cecil Sharp House | reviews, news & interviews

Julia Holter, Cecil Sharp House

Julia Holter, Cecil Sharp House

Goofiness, jazz skronk and aural swoons from Los Angeles's queen of art music

Imagine an aural swoon of a song like a mermaid’s sigh preceding one which introduces Saint-Saëns’s The Carnival of the Animals to free-jazz skronk. After that, Laurie Anderson pops along to take on the soft soul of the early Seventies Isley Brothers. An evening with Julia Holter encompasses all of that, yet knits it all together gracefully to make a whole like nothing else.

Imagine an aural swoon of a song like a mermaid’s sigh preceding one which introduces Saint-Saëns’s The Carnival of the Animals to free-jazz skronk. After that, Laurie Anderson pops along to take on the soft soul of the early Seventies Isley Brothers. An evening with Julia Holter encompasses all of that, yet knits it all together gracefully to make a whole like nothing else. Despite the fleetingly familiar elements, it couldn’t really sound ordinary: her chosen live set up supplements her own keyboard with drums, a violinist, cellist and saxophonist. Hardly a regular band.

Holter can’t be accused of taking the easy path, and last night's hour on stage showed that however obtuse she might initially seem her disregard for the conventional doesn’t make her music inaccessible. The set drew from the just-issued album Loud City Song and its predecessor Ektastis. No one seemed to have any problems with new songs like “He's Running Through my Eyes”, “Horns Surrounding Me” or “City Appearing” – the audience were rapt and the new complemented the familiar, although Ektastis’s opener “Marienbad” did raise a cheer as it began.

It was surprising that Holter’s songs are so malleable

Live, with this unconventional line-up, Holter’s songs – lush, like deep-pile carpet on record – translated well to stripped-down arrangements. “This is a True Heart” and “City Appearing” took on a new character, the latter especially – becoming a new form of soul music. One encompassing the Isleys, and Curtis Mayfield too. 

While it was surprising that Holter’s songs are so malleable, the other overriding impression was that their writer is unforced and actually fairly goofy. She’ll never win a prize for dancing with that mumsy shimmy. Walking on stage and taken aback by the reception she said, “You guys are so nice, you just completely stopped talking.” Reflecting on the venue, she mused that Cecil Sharp “sounds like an important person, the Alan Lomax of Britain". She charmed, but it can’t have been easy performing on the edge of a narrow stage with the closest members of the audience pretty much looking up your nose.

Last night, she revealed another album is already finished

The space Holter occupies is very particular, yet she is not easy to pin down. From Los Angeles, she attracted attention playing with lost Sixties singer-songwriter Linda Perhacs, whose 1970 album Parallelograms is now a major cult item. A couple of low-key CDs were followed in 2011 by her first album proper, Tragedy, which drew from Euripides’s Hippolytus. She’s prolific: its successor Ektastis – the Greek title resonant of Tragedy’s inspiration – came last year. Last night, she revealed another album is already finished. “Maybe I’ll release it under another name to trick you,” she said.

Her third album, Loud City Song is her first recorded in a traditional studio. It filters Colette’s Gigi through Holter’s own vision of Los Angeles and features a heart-breaking cover of the 1963 Barbara Lewis single “Hello Stranger” – a highlight last night. Previously, she’s covered the totemic Arthur Russell, referenced film director Alain Resnais, and performed a one-off concert in Poland with a local string ensemble.

That Holter is well-read, high-minded and has great taste is clear. But without such assured and engaging music to support her conceptual notions, she would be stranded in an art-music ghetto where a few furrowed brows rather than rapt audiences would be as far as it could go. With last night’s show the culmination of a world tour, it’s now equally clear there are no boundaries to Holter’s appeal.

Visit Kieron Tyler’s blog 

Listen to "Maxim's I" from Julia Holter's Loud City Song overleaf

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