Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Julia Holter - Loud City Song


I really should find an alternative to having to bring up that age-old comparison with buses y'know. *Sigh* well here it comes: in my recent review of Julianna Barwick's latest album, I spoke [very] briefly of the female equivalent to showcasing the power of human vocals amidst instrumentation, coming leaps and bounds over the past five-or-so-years. Taking what we've heard from the likes of Kate Bush, PJ Harvey & Feist most note-worthy as of late, there's never a dull moment for the feminine half of artistry to show they have as much (if not more) a strength as their masculine opposite when delivering emotion atop context. So to be standing at the musical bus stop of prolonged patience, and having offered up a new Julia Holter record, the Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter's third in as many years, is by no means a frustration. Admittedly, I (unlike a certain other writer) wasn't as joyous or uplifted by 2012's Ekstasis; my own praise for the record a little lower for its lack of fleshed-out structure and ideas where its delectable playfulness and charm, paid off superbly. By no means do I come to an album less than 12 months down the line from the previous, with suspicion or concern though; I welcome new content as much as the next guy. But the question that's ideally going to be asked here on Loud City Song, is whether or not Holter can see past her own distinctive personality and ethereal wrap of identity to finally give her sound its fully-deserved push to a completed experience. 

Translating that into not just great deliveries, but superb ones, is a challenge I recognize; a sound that focuses on atmosphere and minimal instrumentation, some could argue, already puts Holter at a disadvantage. 'Heaven' is the first word to drift from out of Holter's softening transcendency on opener World, 'are you looking for anything'. Additional harmonics and blurred harpsicords and piano tip-toe in - sticking their bare limbs into a calmness that's soon abruptly troubled, the environment conveying a threatened or struck-by-something tension. Already I feel myself drawn in, speculative of whether or not this piece is, visually, depicting something more antagonistic than what Holter is letting off. And that holding-back - that misleading nature - is what she expels remarkably, still illustrative, but remaining in refusal to getting involved. Maxim's I by contrast, is a lot more active and responsive a track - playing out like the comforting scene almost to the same aesthetical picture-postcard of a downtempo-genre piece. But in the mix of gentle taps and grainy percussion textures, Holter's more personality-driven vocals and narrative question and passionately direct us to the topic. 'Tonight the birds are watching me/Do they have more important things to do?' It's when we're greeted by the increasing wane of violins and piano (which here specifically is the least transfixed, shifting between clarities and textures the most) does Holter's use of movement - one of the things that caught my eye on her previous LP - and the shift in character that comes with it, add a more theatrical element to a narrative that seems to show Holter's rather baffled feelings on not simply attention-seeking, but overly rewarding attention where it's not needed. 

It's inevitable then that I, the listener, become startled, perhaps confused, in how I'm expected to connect with the language and vibe of the music. But surprisingly, this is one of the strengths Holter focuses on to great effect in the flow of the overall album. It plays out like suddenly jumping ten-or-so chapters forward into a book, or better yet, finding one's self at the mercy of a dream (eventually trying to recollect it back in the waking/conscious realm) that never passes concretely in seconds - simply jumps from one moment to the next. It's that aesthetic that plays brilliantly on the track Horns Surrounding Me. Within the first moments, we're presented with these slushy crunch of footsteps at a running speed, like indeed we've skipped a large bulk of the narrative, to another crucial point in the story. The compressed quality to the bass and looping call of brass seems to add suggestion that the song is of a supposedly treachorous and crucial tone. Yet, the way the drums come in - adding a surprisingly robust and disfiguring rhythm - allows the atmosphere to convey more a loss and confusion about itself. But the rhythmic march of drums and rolling-on bellow that slowly seeps underneath the track's multitude of layers, stops the piece from losing connection and tension with its listener. Holter's own pass from lacing harmony to this on-the-mark syllableness in her vocals, acts to cement and decree that the track's narrative is not only crucial because of its identification, but more-so for its lack of one to begin with.

That lack of solidarity, or perhaps the decision to let the creepish rise of sound and effect loom over the piece, gives Holter's reasoning for space and repetition, more a useful tool to remark about the atmosphere and context of the track's placing without having to find some way to match up each and every singular notion into a complete whole. 'There's a humor in the way they walk' she notes on the track In The Green Wild like she's speaking as much from the outside perspective as she is fashionably living the moment inside too. Finding Holter's love for jazz, accoustics and effects culminating together, the track starts personal almost to the point of enclosure (like a secretive or private performance) but gradually opens itself out, allowing us to take note, take view and even embrace the intimacy of the track's warm bass and percussion. But to take a 1963 hit for Barbara Lewis and convert into the six-minute drone-eased spectacle that is Hello Stranger, will perhaps be treated as Julia Holter's crowning achievment in understanding and pushing the extremes of ethereal interraction. Here, gentle cellos and violins grace the low-frequency drone beneath Holter's own considered, almost tentative, release of vocals. 'It seems like a mighty long time' she repeats initially the response to the question 'How long's it been?', the singular line never losing its raw tug of curious and sheering emotion alike, nor does it find Holter's questioning tone of such a simple matter, fade away. 

As the listener progressively drifts amid this plane that appears to physically cast itself more and more away from the city streets of the album's sleeve, there remains that retaining of the scenery's ever-lasting detail bit of nightly release and compassion. So it's onto Maxim's II that Holter addresses the less desired and more tenser, argumentative barage of intensity to such scenery. A track divided into three key movements: first, the dawning shine of strings and Holter's characture tone of voice; second, a background-foreground clash in voices that turns almost into a cash for dominance and security; lastly, though an extension of the previous, Holter allows the musical portions break out from the hushed simplicity of the environment - brass and horns alike squeeling and bawling in every direction while a scruntled bass frequency and noisy twists of electronics, again, creep up as if the intention has always been to disrupt and engage...and the goal is near completion. Hence, why here I'm more inclined o favour this use of cutting-off and drastic disruption more than what Barwick presented on a track of hers (though different in intensity and context). Admittedly I will say the two-minute prose of He's Running Through My Eyes - while again working to pull the listener in and matching the record on atmosphere - I feel doesn't suit the tag of two-minute 'interlude'; myself preferring to have seen this track fleshed beyond what is a surmizeable set up to  a potentially romantic foray of mood.

This Is A True Heart returns to the former personal setting of late-night jazz and time-passing-by bliss (car horns and out-of-the-door footsteps being heard whizzing and breezing past in that unrelated, unfaffiliated fashion). But moreso, we see the increased liveliness and flutter of saxophones and guitar strings, allow the track to convey a hypnotizing delight over something Holter tends to look over more in a spectator position,  bringing forth a fair tenderness and compassion towards, 'See the young so old so fast, they don't understand'. Ending with City Appearing, Holter's motion-capture of society and people leaving the setting appears more an acceptant one in how she sympathizes even if with a degree of pity easing its way in parts. The simple piano keys and flare of strings leading the track, feel as if to emphasize that balance of bliss and melancholy - the emptiness and the sheer breadth of space that's brought on the listener's eye having a further length of effect. The drum hits, moreso the occassional cymbals tumble down like tiny ripples fading off a calm surface. And even as the piece begins to make-up for the lack of warm bodies, the final two minutes increase dynamically again in that ruptured, shattered decline of state as if one of two things is happening: first, the scene itself is crumbling from a lack of activity, or more frightfully, some other force is beginning its take-over due to said decline.

It's very rare that an album - a record, an experience, a narrative so unconventionally presented and delivered - manages to captivate me in a way where, like Holter, I can easily find myself one of many characters in the spacious scenes she creates, and equally be the [safe] spectator willing to watch it all fall without as much as a care for my own well-being. Emotionally though, Loud City Song generates one of those rare moments in music that matches a person's state regardless of how far it is on either end of the spectrum. Should you lie on the positive side, the sounds reminiscing and radiating off create calm and ease. On the negative however, and it glides you (without force) through a connective realm of heartstrung tone and imagination that might as well bring tears, but by no means makes matters worse. Inevitably, Julia Holter uplifts us instead, crafting one of 2013's most ingenius progressions through such simple visuals, yet projects it in a loftiness of subtle instrumentation and carefully measured vocals. I'm one of many of Holter's listeners who have sat through that defined my conscious thoughts at the time. To feel neither tainted nor troubled by what I hear - and to still come away believing my exact state of mind will not be quite the same - is quite revealing. But if this was the objective Julia Holter set in reaching, she's not just reached it, she's surpassed it. And brilliantly so.
~Jordan

9.1

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