utorak, 21. siječnja 2014.

Julia Holter - Loud City Song (2013)

Holter je, čak i kad podbaci, poput planinskog vrha koji ponekad navrati u vaše dvorište.


Describing how a record sounds is unimportant, unless you’re trying to sell it (or save someone from wasting their money); doing so just reduces the thing to a bunch of tastes, a shopping list of probable adjectives. The music we keep listening to has a life beyond the sounds, a web of possibilities they engender through being listened to, a promise that goes beyond and outside being passively acquired, listened to, and filed away somewhere; it becomes less a record and more a window to a private language we access and reconstruct each time we hear it. As such, each experience we have with important records are at once a process of production and a product we experience, and Loud City Song feels as though it were made from the same process — a deep connection with the text (Gigi, Frank O’Hara, who knows what else) mingling with the personal. It’s a record that feels like it lives in the same way thoughts do, in the same way experience does. Built out of literary experimentation, a dense web of parent texts, gorgeous and daring arrangements, and a desire to reclaim eternal values (love, privacy) out of the welter, Loud City Song is as dense as it is open ended: the further you pry it open, the bigger it becomes.
By imbuing the mundane and commonplace with meaning and peering in and out of perspectives, Julia Holter builds worlds that fold over one another in frameworks of the personal and literary, as if she’s scattering breadcrumbs over a forest from a great height for you to pick out your own meaning. Like any modernist piece of work, Loud City Song consciously walks through paths that have been beaten before, but unravels threads out into new corners and ushers you in; records of this complexity and depth rarely feel so inviting. If making it new — that is, recalling to life the richness and intangibility of experience through mixing the old, the new, and the personal into something distinct — is the promise of modernist art, then Loud City Song deserves to go next to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse instead of whatever Domino is putting out next.
As such, Loud City Song is far more than what it makes reference to, and much of this comes down to Holter’s burgeoning ambition as an arranger and composer. Although the through-composed complexity of “Marienbad” isn’t to be found here, her arrangements defy repetition, building complex, detailed avenues of feeling and form out of orchestra and Korgchestra alike. The ground covered is vast; the progressions in the sparse “World” feel like a cousin to Glassworks robbed of rhythm and stress, but still feel of a piece with the deft jazzy strangeness of “In the Green Wild” to the motorik chanson of “This is a True Heart.”
That reach is mirrored by how her voice has become a more flexible, confident thing, stretching between restraint, chattiness, and force to wear the different hats her songs need. In “Horns Surrounding Me,” she recasts herself as not just within some stripe of urban chaos, but of it, her voice at once stridently directing and being engulfed. When she mourns in “Hello Stranger,” it feels like a necklace being dropped down a very deep well, in direct contrast to the coy chattiness of “In the Green Wild.” Her voice may not stretch everywhere on the scale, but every sound it makes belongs.
Holter has said her lyrics sometimes originate from mesostics (the aleatoric process that John Cage used extensively), and this sense of indeterminacy is what gives Loud City Song its real heft, as the ambiguities and depth she offers are vast and reward repeated listening. Heck, she could be referring to Michael Jackson in the final lines of “Maxim’s II.” With her voice and her music, she evokes; with her words, she invites you to be a part of her meaning, like how she has become consumed within the texts she’s adapted. From the way in which the worlds of the personal and the referential fold over each other into something new, there emerges a personal geography, full of suggestion and silence. Like how something written in parataxis comes alive between the sentences, her text is present and ready, and the sense arrives that the only thing missing is you.
Taking a step back, Loud City Song feels like an important anomaly in the mainstream indie (yeah, I know) discourse. This sits up quietly but pointedly as a quiet rebuke to records that won’t try to render the depth of the world in a layered and crafted way, those that prefer to just wink, shrug, or laze. While our discussions fragment, dovetail, and spin further away from the center of experience, these songs point to trees, to moments, to cars, a reminder of what’s present and unchanging. As Holter puts it, “This is a true heart/ Listen hard/ These are true words/ Listen hard.”
Through the invention, the rich emotion, and the fierce intelligence underpinning Loud City Song, I found myself unthinkingly and woozily recalling the thrill I had the first time I heard Joni Mitchell as a teenager. I don’t mean that as a simplistic gender-centric comparison, since Holter is avowedly not a confessional songwriter — it’s because Mitchell was (when at her best) the boldest, most innovative, and insightful songwriter of her whole generation by a gap, and Holter is looking as though she may well become that; essentially, someone you can’t help but learn about yourself by listening to, one who necessarily expands the wealth of your perception by pointing out what you didn’t know you were staring a hole through. Diving calculatedly into the maze of reference points that dwell in this record risks making your experience of Holter drier or dustier; this record demands to be experienced first and reasoned later, to be encountered when amid the world it describes, in a city, alone, looking. The most important thing about it is that this is the kind of music that can bring you and the world around you back to full, vivid life, and if music can do something more important than that, I don’t want to know about it. - 

In an early scene in the still-fascinating, delightfully bizarre 1958 MGM musical Gigi, a few characters enter a restaurant called Maxim’s. The vibe is Moulin Rouge meets Cheers: a frenetic, turn-of-the-century Parisian haunt where, for better or worse, everybody knows your name. When each couple enters Maxim’s-- yes, couple; somehow you get the sense that it would be social suicide for a respectable lady of the time to step foot in the place unaccompanied-- a crowd of patrons begins to chant in a hushed, gossipy tone. As they whisper the kinds of things that people rarely say aloud (even when they’re thinking them), and the scene draws a bleak, ironic contrast between people’s private thoughts and the outward demands of polite society. “Isn’t she a mess? Isn’t she a sight?” they say as one pair enters. “Let’s invite them out tomorrow night!”
“There’s something kind of creepy about that scene that I wanted to bring out,” L.A. avant-pop musician Julia Holter said in a recent interview, talking about “Maxim’s I & II”, a gorgeous (if slightly sinister) pair of songs that appear on her mesmerizing third album, Loud City Song. Holter’s said that the album is her own loose interpretation of Gigi-- both the musical and the original 1944 novella by the French writer Colette (the plot, in the expert, proto-Twitter brevity of a Turner Classic Movie blurb: “A Parisian girl is raised to be a kept woman but dreams of love and marriage.”).
Plenty of other songwriters might fumble or stiffen when drawing on source material from decades before they were born, but not Holter. Maybe it’s because making a record based on a 1950s MGM musical is actually her idea of keeping things new-school: Tragedy, her 2011 debut, was an ambitious yet intimate meditation on ancient Greek playwright Euripides’ Hippolytus, while her dreamily crystalline follow-up Ekstasis (also a nod to ancient Greece) sounded like bedroom pop made by somebody with pin-ups of Heidegger and Virginia Woolf (and also maybe Laurie Anderson) papering the walls. Holter’s music is learned (she studied musical composition at CalArts) and proudly erudite, and yet not in a way that feels like it’s talking down to the listener. Still, she’s never made a record quite as inviting as Loud City Song-- her first album for Domino and the one most likely to turn skeptics to believers. From the panoramic ballroom swoon of “Maxim’s I” to the twinkling, kinetic chatter of its sequel, there’s an energy coursing through Loud City Song that makes it feel-- more than anything she’d done so far-- breezy, contemporarily resonant, and at all times flutteringly alive.
Loud City Song is the first album that Holter recorded outside of her bedroom, and-- like a 19th century French literary heroine seeking the therapeutic air of a seaside vacation-- the change in scenery seems to have loosened her up a bit. If Ekstasis had the serene intimacy of home recordings made with the apartment curtains drawn, Loud City Song finds her flinging open the drapes and taking rhythmic cues from the bustle of people below. Much of this newfound dynamism comes from adding new collaborators (and returning to trusted old ones: like Ekstasis, the record was mixed and co-produced by Ariel Pink collaborator Cole Mardsen Greif-Neill) and embracing a more jazz-oriented instrumentation-- trombones, strings, and a double bass all add a little drama, agility, and even playfulness to her sound.
Holter name-checks old Parisian landmarks like Maxim’s and says she was also inspired by the disconnectedness and buzzing anonymity of her hometown ("In L.A., it's like everyone's invisible. That's why I like it here."). But what gives these songs an emotional resonance beyond the confines of her own imagination is the way they capture something universal about the joys and anxieties of living in any modern city. As Holter's nimble voice skips between her siren-song falsetto and a more percussive delivery closer to spoken word, the mood of the album is in constant flux: in the menacing “Horns Surrounding Me” the brisk footfall of her fellow passersby evokes claustrophobia, danger and paranoia (is she being chased? Or is it all in her head?), but by the next song, the playful pop-cabaret “In the Green Wild”, she’s looking at her fellow pavement-pounders with a sense of bemused wonder.
Still, it’s the album’s centerpiece, a hypnotizing six-and-a-half minute rendition of Barbara Lewis' “Hello Stranger”, that might just be the most uncomplicatedly gorgeous thing Holter’s ever done. It’s risky to tackle a tune that’s been covered enough times to make it feel like a modern-day standard, but Holter’s atmospheric take finds a particular strain of longing and serenity in the song. It's a heart-stopper. Amidst the rest of Loud City Song’s chatty, high-concept vitality, “Hello Stranger” is a moment of comfort and instant connection, like suddenly spotting a familiar face on a busy street.
Though there’s definitely a narrative arc to the record, it doesn’t stick so close to the Gigi script to become tedious; Loud City Song moves with an internal logic that’s more impressionistic than literal. Some of its pieces do stand sturdily on their own, but taken in one sitting the album unfurls like one long, thoughtfully arranged composition-- lyrics and images recur, and characters gradually evolve. The narrator at the center (Gigi? Holter? Some kind of poetic hybrid of the two?) begins as a detached, observant outsider-- just another anonymous face gazing curiously at the city below from the perch of her fifth-floor walk-up ("I don't how why I wear a hat so much," Holter sings beneath the sparse groan of a cello on the opening song, "World", "The city can't see my eyes under the brim.") But by the end-- the second-to-last track, “This Is a True Heart” prances like a lazy-Sunday carousel ride-- she sounds not only more vulnerable but lighter, too. In a way, the arc of Loud City Song mirrors Holter’s artistic evolution: Ekstasis found kindred spirits in statues and goddesses (“I can see you but my eyes are not allowed to cry,” she repeated on “Goddess Eyes II”, cloaked in a vocoder), but the psychologically complex narrator at the heart of Loud City Song moves like flesh and blood.
“There’s a flavor to the sound of walking no one ever noticed before," Holter chants in a rapt whisper throughout "In the Green Wild". It's a telling line: Loud City Song is one of those records so full of un-jaded wonder and attuned to the secret music of ordinary things that the world looks a little bit different while it's playing. I don't think I fully appreciated it until I listened to the whole thing while looking out a second-story window onto a crowded street during rush hour, watching an endless procession of people with eyes hidden to the city under the brims of hats (or, to update Holter's image, staring down at their iPhones). To the tune of "World", I started wondering who they all were, where they were rushing, and what they were thinking. Though it draws upon the distant past, Julia Holter's made a timeless people-watching soundtrack: an acutely felt ode to the mysteries of a million passersby, all the stars of their own silent musicals. - Lindsay Zoladz
In an interview (conducted by himself) promoting 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, eccentric genius David Byrne argued that “the better the singer’s voice, the harder it is to believe what they’re saying.” While Byrne wasn’t claiming that this was a hard and fast rule, the statement held a lot of weight in a world where so many strong voices got gobbled up by the pop music machine only to be rendered indistinguishable from each other. There’s still some of that going on, to be sure, but there’s also the enhanced potential to discover the outliers, those that go beyond the presumed either/or binary in music of technical proficiency and experimental, artistic depth. One such example is Julia Holter, whose Loud City Song displays her classical training and immaculately strong voice, as well as her idiosyncratic, emotionally salient worldview.
It’s a pretty nice coincidence that later in that same interview, Byrne explains that his songwriting is an effort “to show people the movies in my head.” Parts of Holter’s new album, Loud City Song, act as a sort of re-envisioning of Colette’s 1944 novella Gigi, and likely the 1958 film version of the same. The press release also notes influence from noted New York School poet Frank O’Hara, and the album featuring highly narrative-driven lyrics, some even including filmic sound effects. From these minor details alone, it’s clear that Holter is more than just a pretty voice; she’s also someone interested in revealing to the world the movies playing in her head, movies full of social intrigue, introspection, and slow pans over beautiful cityscapes.
Ekstasis standout “Marienbad” held ties to New Wave classic Last Year At Marienbad. But tracks like “Maxim’s I” delves into the task far more literally, voices of multiple characters channeled through Holter’s own, as the easy drum rolls, upright bass, and choral wash of big budget Hollywood embolden her play. A scene in Gigi finds the determinately individualist title character stepping into Maxim’s, an elite, high-end restaurant, only to find herself the center of gossip and intention. After a dream sequence-like fade in on shimmering cymbals, Holter steps into that same role: “Tonight the birds are watching me/ do they have more important things to do?” Later, she whispers out the voyeuristic lines of the onlookers, analyzing herself in turn.
After fading back out on that same cymbal sibilance, “Horns Surrounding Me” opens with the sound of eager calls, hurried breath, and even more hurried footfalls, Holter whispering about something “chasing after me.” The trumpet stabs and walking low-end sound ripped from a Hitchcock thriller, but then big, lush vocals and snapping drums pull the song through into an orchestral pop tune, the horns still penning her in. Later, she sings on “World” about wearing a hat, a seemingly innocuous choice until she starts to wonder about how the brim hides her eyes from other people. These songs consistently analyze the place of individual choice in the face of others having that same ability to choose, from the tale of differing opinions and love slipping away on “He’s Running Through My Eyes” to mere costume choice in “World”.
But the album doesn’t end with mismatched intentions, outsider status, and frustrated communication with the world. The light bounce of “This Is A True Heart” announces the difference, the trait that keeps Holter from falling into the bile of the gossipy society, from fading into jaded emptiness, and from that trap of the good voice that Byrne described. “These are true words/ speak heart,” she coos, over a breezy bed of fluttering flute, trombone bursts, and pizzicato strings, all wrapped together by an impossibly slinky tenor sax. That knowledge of self and willingness to speak it in the face of judgment, scrutiny, and dismissal is a rare power, Holter’s inner voice just as strong as her physical one.
Perhaps not coincidentally, these songs come about as Holter moves from bedroom-recorded indie darling to Domino Records, a professional studio, and a room full of session musicians, daubing her compositions in glitzy, orchestral trappings. She’s not alone in her own world, but rather acting as the tour guide to its landmarks. Loud City Song is a sightseeing trip with a person fully able to portray the objective beauty of the sights, as well as her own take on them. - Adam Kivel

With last year’s startling Ekstasis, Julia Holter made a pocket-world novel. You’ve probably read one as a kid, be it The Secret Garden or The Chronicles of Narnia, the kind of stories that make up more story, finding fantasy in a past that seems surreal. Ekstasis is like walking through a garden to find the place nobody else can go, or shaking off the creaky woodwork of a house for snow at the end of a wardrobe. If Holter finds the majority of bedroom pop being made today lazy, it’s because she discovered a kingdom among her four walls; on “Marienbad”, she brought together plucked violin notes, harp playing so remote it sounded like a memory, and keyboards playing to the side, as if you were waking up to find a new world at the end of your bed. If you jumped in, Ekstasis began.
Holter is half a traditionalist, half a futurist, treating her baroque setting with ambient keyboard music, assuming a new world has remnants of an ancient one. Her fantasies run in circles, or at least that felt like the intention of Ekstasis: it made no compromises with the modern world, instead meshing together past and future. So it’s easy to see Loud City Song, her newest album, as a surprising thematic shift from this inventive other-world writing. Its setting is the bustling city of present day Los Angeles and its premise as good as “Why are we interested in Kim Kardashian?”. In a wonderful interview with FACT Magazine, Holter claimed the album grew from “Maxim’s”—a song about her infatuation with Gigi—into a modern parable about the disasters of a crowded population that perpetuates its problems onto celebrities. It’s an anxious album as a result, its melodious nature folding seamlessly into dissonance, and Holter dichotomising the reality of personhoods with the fantasies invented for them. Are we interested in Kim Kardashian, or are we interested in watching her?
Holter presents that question on “Maxim’s”, with a sense of genuine incredulity: “Tonight the birds are watching me / do they have more important things to do?” It’s a reminder that celebrity gazing is a disturbing, almost surreal prospect when you apply it—the idea you could walk into a room and everyone would look up at you, invoking a sudden, mutual break in the social contract. With her jumping off point as Gigi or the updated Kardashian version, Holter’s scenes are characterized by the distress of her subjects and their attempts to obscure themselves. “World” is a fragmented song that ascends painstakingly, its ominous instrumental flourishes—ranging from piano to imitations with brass instruments and cello—brought in only momentarily, as a sound one can’t quite trace or dispel. As the tension mounts, Holter’s character becomes more and more unsettled, covering her face so the city can’t see her, but feeling trapped in her own skin when alone in her apartment.
Loud City Song is predicated on an obsession with collective scapegoating, but the city is a place in which anyone can feel like the epicenter. This world is less insular than Holter’s previous work, being lived in and impressed upon by thousands upon thousands, rather than an adventure for one. It’s an attempt to live with others when only your mind is real company, moving from hectic, bustling interactions to watching the empty streets from your window. Many of these songs are amorphous, and all are fraught with a sense of breathless anxiety; “Maxim’s II” brittles with the tension of its build, Holter trading segments in which she whispers over clamoring percussion for moments of unsettling tranquil. It becomes calmed, but only storm-calmed, the song eventually erupting into a noxious jazz outro. The uncertain “In The Green Wild” is navigated with a slick double-bass riff, assuring a clear path through the streets, but Holter’s jesting character is hurried, her tongue-twisting “Woah”s a nifty earworm, but also a dizzying swirl. The song’s dynamic shift into a miasmic outro is akin to Loud City Song as a whole, an album in which characters face abrupt scene changes.
The title Holter gave Loud City Song is deceptive. It doesn’t speak to the album’s volume, necessarily, nor that it was recorded to blast your ears, noise-rock style. It’s more about the clatter on the streets, and loud in a less overt way, the music invoking chaos in your head and delivering the L.A. anxiety to you. That’s how “Maxim’s II” feels, for sure—those ferocious last minutes manipulate your headspace—but even the more ambient compositions are possessed by a strained mind. On Ekstasis they carried a sense of meditation, like Holter was suspending her adventures in the air (time going by slower in the pocket-world than it does in reality), but here their use is darkening. “Hello Stranger”, a Barbara Lewis song, is converted into a six-minute drone complemented with cello and occasional comment from Holter, who impresses upon the song its sense of the dreadfully finite: “Seems like a mighty long time.” Loud City Song doesn’t lose its trepidation when its characters are left to their own devices—if anything they become terrified by what’s within them, scared of being alone, together. “He’s Running Through My Eyes” is a chillingly sparse song with a piano performance that brightens and then recedes, its eponymous refrain feeding hauntingly back to “World” and Holter’s fear of constant connection: “How can I escape you?”
Holter’s conclusion about her city—that everyone becomes their own celebrity, shirking from the street in case they get watched and start hyperventilating—reminds me of another album released this year, Jenny Hval’s sex-tape obsessed Innocence Is Kinky. Hval’s musical experimentation is more angular, and her attempts to understand the celebrity fixation are made by committing to it. That explains why the album’s opening line is so candid: “That night, I watched people fucking on my computer.” It’s a line that finds nothing abnormal about this desire to watch, and even demythologizes it a little. Contrasting these albums is fascinating to me because of their approach to that “Why does everyone care” quandary: Loud City Song makes itself the subject, whereas Innocence Is Kinky reflects on it. Hval shows what it is to be in control of someone in the public eye, to dominate proceedings by simply watching. Holter’s record, on the other hand, feels intruded upon, looked at, and scared of something ultimately invisible. It’s an impressive record to listen to—the compositions are even more beautiful than Ekstasis, even though they’re often more fragmented—but it’s also a frightening depiction of what it feels like to have a whole population making you up in its head. -  Robin Smith

  1. 9.0 |   Clash

    Although it takes more than a couple of listens for ‘Loud City Song’ to feel like a cohesive album, the reward once you do is well worth the outlay
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  2. 9.0 |   Fact

    Don’t let the singular beauty of Loud City Song fool you. Holter may write stunning pop-tinged songs, but she’s an experimental artist through and through
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  3. 9.0 |   The Fly

    Holter’s voice swoons and flutters with the joyful freedom of a woman entering a pop rabbit-hole all her own
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  4. 9.0 |   NME

    This is wild music, a celestial cabaret that absorbs and unsettles
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  5. 9.0 |   Uncut

    Like any new city, this album may take some time getting used to - there's beauty everywhere, but the streets are far from a neat grid. Print edition only.
  6. 9.0 |   music OMH

    Holter’s most accomplished and imaginative album
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  7. 9.0 |   The Irish Times

    These bewitching songs, both quiet and loud, reverberate more deeply with every listen
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  8. 9.0 |   The 405

    Holter's latest effort rewards patience and perseverance; it turns out it's not 'difficult' at all, but is instead a breathtaking and immersive listen
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  9. 9.0 |   All Music

    Holter's most polished work to date, and another example of how she upholds and redefines what it means to be an avant-garde singer/songwriter
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  10. 9.0 |   Pop Matters

    It’s an impressive record to listen to—the compositions are even more beautiful than Ekstasis, even though they’re often more fragmented
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  11. 9.0 |   Sputnik Music (staff)

    Loud City Song may not be loud, but the echo it makes is unforgettable
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  12. 8.8 |   Beats Per Minute

    A true achievement
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  13. 8.7 |   Bowlegs

    Not many people are working their way across the seam between the avant garde and the ’sophisticated’ soul of Sade or Cassandra Wilson quite like Julia Holter
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  14. 8.6 |   Pitchfork

    If Ekstasis had the serene intimacy of home recordings made with the apartment curtains drawn, Loud City Song finds her flinging open the drapes and taking rhythmic cues from the bustle of people below
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  15. 8.5 |   The Line Of Best Fit

    Like her previous works, Loud City Song requires time and patience, but once you grasp its intent the investment will feel wholly worthwhile
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  16. 8.0 |   Under The Radar

    Designed for longevity over quick appeal. For those of you wistful for this approach, look no further
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  17. 8.0 |   Q

    Her songs are challenging, expansive and cinematic. Print edition only
  18. 8.0 |   The Guardian

    A beautiful reminder that we're all doomed
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  19. 8.0 |   DIY

    Superficiality and loneliness have never sounded so tender and dazzling
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  20. 8.0 |   Mojo

    A bona fide musical magician. Print edition only
  21. 8.0 |   Consequence Of Sound

    Loud City Song is a sightseeing trip with a person fully able to portray the objective beauty of the sights, as well as her own take on them
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  22. 8.0 |   The Quietus

    It is an easier, more focused listen than Ekstasis
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  23. 8.0 |   Spin

    One of the most ambitious, unusual, and engaging albums of the year
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  24. 8.0 |   Drowned In Sound

    A jaw-dropping accomplishment
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  25. 7.0 |   FasterLouder

    No matter how abstract the arrangements Holter finds a way to make them inclusive rather than isolating
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  26. 6.0 |   The Arts Desk

    This is an incredibly hard album to work out
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  27. 3.0 |   Loud And Quiet

    For the most part this feels a little bit like being dragged along to witness a friend’s first attempt at experimental theatre: mostly painful, and thoroughly tedious
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Julia Holter Talks About How To Make Yourself A Work of Art, The Vagueness of Memory

Aug. 15, 2013 by Matt Sullivan

Julia Holter Talks About How To Make Yourself A Work of Art, The Vagueness of Memory
Between her considerable training in classical music theory and her elusive, deceptively homebrewed recording process, there's something about Julia Holter's repertoire that makes it inherently difficult to discuss. It's a catalog that’s begging to be over-intellectualized. In the midst of breaking out to a wider audience, it seems destined to be pigeonholed as something careful, sophisticated, and generally made for smart people who are sitting down. But even when she references situational drama from Greek mythology, as she did on her breakout LP, Tragedy, I’ve always felt that her music possessed accessible, sensual tendencies, in direct opposition to the rigid image that many hold of The Conservatory. Think, for example, of the bass groove midway through "This is Ekstasis;" it's a cut from sophomore record Ekstasis that evokes the raw avant-rock of Eno in Roxy Music more than say, Laurie Anderson, to whom Holter is frequently compared. Still, more than her influences, Holter’s knack for universal human portraiture is what shines through.
It's a gift that feels particularly evident on her forthcoming third LP, Loud City Song, and as we got deeper into conversation in a corner of the Tribeca Grand Hotel lobby, it felt like an affirmation of her true artistic identity. Loud City Song is, by her own admission, her first real collaboration-- most prominently, with Los Angeles indie sound guru and former Haunted Graffiti member Cole M. Grief-Neill as her engineer, producer, and general brainstormer--but it retains the solitary intimacy of her previously mostly-homemade output. Though she still relies heavily on allusion to examine interpersonal relationships, the primary source is something a little chintzier than heavy Greek drama: the Lerner-Loewe musical film Gigi, the source inspiration for much of the album, particularly centerpiece tracks “Maxim’s I” and “II.” During our conversation, Holter talked to me about what it was like working in a new environment and the complexities of making art that references other art.
Ad Hoc: What was different about working on Loud City Song compared to your previous albums?
Julia Holter: It was great, because it was the best of both worlds. I was using material that I’d written alone-- in the same way that I had usually written and had made demos--, but I got to explore a lot of things without feeling the pressure of making those initial demos the final versions. It was actually really freeing. I tried a bunch of stuff being like, “I’m going to do this but when we record it, we can do it better.” So, I basically came up with the atmosphere for every song, and then was able to work with people like Cole, who knows so much about sound and can deal with it really subtlely. I’m so heavy-handed with everything because I don’t really know what I’m doing, so it was helpful getting to work with someone who's knowledgeable about that while I still get to direct the atmosphere. He can just execute things better than I can, in terms of cueing a voice so it’s the way I want it, but he would also make decisions. Like, I would have a recording of a street sound and he would play with ideas of where to put that. And I had these amazing players-- I had parts written out for all of them, but they’re all different. Some of the songs would be wholly written out, but then some would be just chords and they’d improvise within that framework. So it varied. I recorded a lot at home as well-- I recorded all my keyboard parts at home, and did vocals at Cole’s house rather than in the studio. He has a very nice microphone, but it wasn’t a real studio, so it wasn’t like I suddenly had to go full pro. It was a very, very comfortable process, a much better way than I was doing it before.
Ad Hoc: You mentioned that you initially recorded demos for Loud City Song by yourself. Were these initial song ideas floating around when you were making Tragedy and Ekstasis?
JH: I did work on some of it earlier, but not really as an album. In the later part of when I was working on Ekstasis, maybe in 2010, I was working on this song called “Maxim’s” for Ekstasis, and then I was like, “This song does not make sense on this record at all.” And it was inspired by this moment in the musical Gigi where she walks into a room and everyone is staring at her and gossiping. I liked the social dynamic. It was different. I wanted to do something different where I was dealing with a social situation, whereas usually my songs are very introspective or something. So it was a cool change, but I was like, "This does not make sense for this record, so I have to make a whole new record." And that’s the point where I started thinking about what this record was going to have in it and stuff like that.
Ad Hoc: So it all kind of built around that song?
JH: Kind of. It started from that song, and then I would draw upon other themes in that story. Yeah, it started with that song.
Ad Hoc: You have multiple versions of “Goddess Eyes” and multiple versions of “Maxim’s.” What makes you decide to reinterpret one of your songs?
JH: I did that for different reasons. With “Goddess Eyes,” I did that because I was working on Tragedy for Leaving Records, which is my friend [Matthewdavid's] label in L.A., and then while I was working on that, my friend Ramona [Gonzalez] from Nite Jewel sent a mixtape to Matt Werth who runs RVNG Int’l., a label here in New York, and it had “Goddess Eyes” on it. It wasn’t out on Tragedy yet-- Tragedy didn’t come out until two years later. But I was working on it at the time, and he really liked that song and he wanted to release it. So, I decided to do a different version of “Goddess Eyes” for the RVNG version. It was more like a curatorial choice or something, which is weird, but that was the whole reason. With “Maxim’s,” the reason I did it was because I was playing my keyboard one day, and I found this one sound-- it was actually a default sound on the keyboard--and I really liked it. I played these seventh chords with it and I loved how it sounded. I was like, this has to be a song, this is so cool-sounding. And then I recorded what I was doing and sang the lyrics to “Maxim’s” over it just because I needed something to sing over it, and it ended up being great for the record. Having it there twice isn’t a problem to me-- the first one is the sort of welcoming, surreal, invitational one, and then the one toward the end of the record is the more confrontational, in-your-face, unpleasant one.
Ad Hoc: Is there anything in particular about interpersonal relationships that comes through in Loud City Song, given that you were in more of a collaborative environment and the subject matter was slightly altered from your previous work?
JH: Yeah, I think the subject matter was different, but the approach was similar to Tragedy: I’m taking a story that already exists and playing with it and building my own world. Building my own story, really, or another story. If we’re talking about personal relationships and experiences that one has, like how much of it is biographical, I would say it never changes much. I would say the one constant is that my music tends to be very abstracted from my own experiences. But I would never say there’s nothing of them there, you know? I wouldn’t say it’s completely nothing, because you can only think about love or something based on what you know. It’s not like with Taylor Swift, where I’m writing a song about my ex-boyfriend. I don’t think I’ve ever done that, but there’s definitely always an impetus to in your mind to recall what you know, like an emotion you know.
Most of my songs tend to have one sentiment each. Like one of them will be about a yearning for something-- a lot of the time my songs are about a yearning, like a statue wanting to be able to run, like in “Marienbad.” Or someone wanting to escape, like “In The Green Wild.” So those are all things I can relate to and I can work with as subject matter based on my personal experiences. But it’s all abstracted. If I wanted to write a song about my boyfriend or something, I could, but what is inspiring to me is to have other perspectives combined with my own. To work with a sentiment expressed in someone else’s work, like a play or something, and to think about how that connects to my own experience. Or with the new record, it excites me and interests me and makes me want to write music. There’s this song in Gigi called “I Remember It Well,” and the whole thing is cheesy, but it’s this song about-- there’s this old guy Maurice Chevalier sitting down at a table with Gigi’s great aunt and they're having drinks together, remembering a past romance they had with each other. He keeps saying, “Oh, and then we went to Spain, “ and she would say “No, we went to France,” and he keeps getting it wrong. It’s just like slapstick, but it’s also that memory is really interesting in the way it morphs, and.when I thought about that song, I thought, “Whoa, I did this cover of the song ‘Hello Stranger’ like four years ago,  this amazing oldie by Barbara Lewis in the sixties." It’s such a good song, and the subject matter is really similar. It’s kind of about memory and the vagueness of memory, and in the “Hello Stranger” song by Barbara Lewis there’s not a lot of concrete imagery. It’s more just like pure sentiment, and it’s exclusively one sentiment. “Don’t hurt me like you did before, but it’s so good to see you.”
The reason I have “Hello Stranger” in there is because in Gigi they have that moment where they’re recalling the past, and I thought “Hello Stranger” was a perfect replacement for it. So the references become really convoluted, because I took a cover I did of someone else’s song and used it in place of another song from a musical, combining these very similar sentiments from different places, you know? Maybe it’s from my own experience or maybe it’s from theirs or whatever. Anyone can remember or imagine a time when you run into someone that you’ve been in love with.
Ad Hoc: It brings out this weird universality between different eras of people doing work, and yet you’re able to relate it to today by adding your own personal details to it.
JH: Yeah, and people sometimes think that I have this obsession with the past or that I always want to do that, and isn’t that weird, or why don’t I just want to write about my own experiences, but I actually think a lot of people do that. Maybe not everyone does Greek tragedies, but the only reason I did that was because I happened to be reading them; it’s not because I’m an expert. I’m not trying to be pompous or something. You just choose from stuff you happened to be looking at because that’s what you know. I mean, Shakespeare did that, he used other stories, right? Well, not Shakespeare, necessarily; but most people use other stuff. It doesn’t have to be highbrow work, you know? It doesn’t matter, because to do something based on a Hollywood musical could be tired, which is what I did. It’s all about what you do with it, I think. You have to be honest with yourself. I was actually embarrassed to present it as Gigi, because I’m not proud of it. It’s not cool or hip to do something based on a Hollywood musical. It’s very, like, grandma.
Ad Hoc: But it’s also cool to do things that aren’t hip.
JH: I guess. I mean, I just do things that are true to me and what I’m looking at and what I’m interested in. I can’t really do it unless I want to.

Tragedy (2011)

This has been something of a massively superior year for the drift – superb transmissions from Tim Hecker, Grouper, Christina Vantzou, Kyle Bobby Dun, almost anything on the Low Point label, the wildly-fucked Ship Canal, Pan American, Fedicia Atkinson, Ensemble Economique, KWJAZ, Vladislav Delay, Sun Araw… Hell, I’ll happily argue that Thundercat’s The Golden Age of Apocalypseshould be in there. At a stretch.
But here, towering over all the former and everybody else in 2011 is this completely unique, beautiful, baffling and brilliant fucking planet of an album – Tragedy by Julia Holter.
Conceptually rooted around an atmospheric “interpretation”of Euripides’ Hippolytus with an introduction, interlude and finale,Tragedy utilises voice, synths, drum machines, piano, cello, saxophone, samples, vocoders, ensemble musicians [CalArts New Century Players] and a chorus. Most lyrics are lifted directly from sections of the play (listed in narrative order) but “positioned by an aural logic rather than in the chronological order”. Holter has studied Electronic music at CalArts, worked with Human Ear (occasional home to Ariel Pink and John Maus) and has been collaborating of late with Linda Perhacs (of which more later) as well as juggling a variety of cassette-based projects with at least one more unreleased album in the can. But it’s this album that has drawn so much recent attention and the reason for this is simple –you’ll have rarely heard anything like it.
‘The Introduction’ is a gently head-wrecking three minute constantly mutating collage starting with insectoid buzz, starkly cold and isolated foghorn (weirdly displaced from any other environmental sound) quick bursts of sampled choir, opera and brittle strings – like constantly dialling a radio through channels of Hitchockesque noir. A muted instrument moves in intimately, initially muted and you experience a slight disorientation as it occurs that this is actually a voice. A brutal cut, a moment to breathe then hissing voices, trumpet-shell blow, more voices split between serenity and somewhere in the background something more insidious. ‘Try to Make Yourself a Work of Art’ explodes in to a clattering dirge – flat-bells maybe, percussive dissonance like an electro-acoustic savvy version of Nick Cave circa From Her to Eternity but also nowhere near – robotic chanting “What your mind/ so sound and safe/ cannot know. This was my plot.”
‘The Falling Age’ starts sweetly, melancholy over languid vast synth tones, immediately heart-ache affecting as Holter delivers a deeply poignant voice singing, “See, here the wretched sufferer comes / His youthful flesh and golden hair / have lost their beauty” before dissolving in hallucinatory fashion into a more menacing series of synth drones with background orchestral disturbances. The truly peculiar atmosphere here is not a million miles from Julee Cruise’s magisterial Floating Into the Night – dark troubling ambience evoked through the warmest of tones – emotionally disorientating sonic surrealism of the highest order. It’s impossible to convey the absolute shock, surprise and joy of what happens next, when ‘Goddess Eyes’ jolts you out of wired reverie with a mind-blasting and weirdly dry vocoder, Holter in another different voice, intoning “I can see you/ but my eyes are not allowed to cry…” as piano and synth melodies emerge to support the minimal electronic bass line. Laurie Anderson may be an obvious parallel to draw on here but it’s fair one – the out-of-usual-context appearance of the vocoder sounding as beautifully fresh as it did on ‘O Superman’ all those years ago.
This is ambience as explored and defined by David Toop in Ocean of Sound and over a string of records in the 90’s (alongside other luminaries such as Paul Schütze): the constant movement of sound and incorporation of non-musical elements – samples, instrumentation and field recordings played live and re-edited – the breakdown of boundaries between useless ideas of what is organic and what isn’t and the dissolution of pop and avant-garde. Pull anything out at random: five minutes into ‘Celebration’ there are organ drones, echoing vocals, fizzing drum machine before weird rumbling swells encroach on the horizon, a piano comes to prominence, Casey Anderson squeals some improvised saxophone. The rolling piano is suddenly subjected to a couple of brutal cuts, the drone vanishes and a car rolls into earshot. One minute you’re in one place and the next you’re somewhere else entirely and you have no idea how you got there and yet you’re still in motion.
Julia Holter’s current association with Linda Perhacs speaks volumes although apparently Holter had not been aware of her work until recently. In 1970 Perhacs released the astonishingParallelograms album, the title track of which notoriously collapses from meditative folk song into psychedelic concrete without warning in a truly bizarre, head-wrecking yet paradoxically coherent move. And this is written all over Tragedy – completely unpredictable yet entirely logical.
But if this all sounds very clever (ostensibly because it is very clever) it’s vital to understand just how emotional Tragedy is. The flow of sound and the remarkable journey Holter takes you on; across the whole of its 50 minutes you’re never less than captivated, enthralled and entirely lost within the peculiarities of its world. It’s the most remarkably sophisticated derangement of the senses I’ve heard in 2011 and although I can’t generally stand to say such things, to consider this as anything less than one of the very best albums of the year would be demeaning. - Jonny Mugwump
It's almost unfortunate that Tragedy-- an album of distant, breathy voices; grainy sound collages; and heavy atmosphere with nearly no release-- came out now, in late 2011, if for no other reason that it sounds so contemporary. Younger bands making cool underground music have become goth-curious for the first time in probably 20 years, and the tendency to filter all "pop" hooks through the funhouses mirrors of "avant-garde" production techniques is so commonplace that clarity-- a voice spared from way too much reverb, for example-- has become the exception instead of the rule. Tragedy-- Julia Holter's first full-length-- is one of "those records," but it's also more: more sonically detailed, more attentive to its compositions, and more clever and varied about its use of grayscale. Holter isn't just holding a Russian icon painting in the air and cranking the echo. In turn, it's a record with more integrity than a lot of its peers, a record committed to itself as a project but also exemplary as a summary of several trends in contemporary underground music now.
If "integrity" sounds like an old-fashioned argument, well, it is. Holter's work here rhymes not only with artists as disparate as Zola Jesus and Grouper (or even a bad-dream version ofJulianna Barwick), but with the quasi-classical, quasi-medieval sounds of 4AD bands circa the mid-1980s or a tradition of adventurous female artists like Laurie Anderson and Meredith Monk-- arty music that tends toward a kind of austere, asexual mystery.
Holter uses plenty of synthesizers, but also field recordings and percussion that sounds like rattling chains, a blend of sounds that register as obviously "unnatural" and ones that register as almost tactile. Long passages of the record have no beats or vocals, and some of the more song-oriented tracks-- "Try to Make Yourself a Work of Art" or "So Lillies", for example-- are structured as ambient passages that seem like they're trying to organically slip into their "pop" moments, then slip out of them as the track comes to a close.
The result is that Tragedy is a continuous experience that I've enjoyed best front-to-back instead of in parts-- a strength for when you have time and patience, a weakness when you don't. (And there's no ambiguity, I don't think, that Holter wants it that way: The first track is called "Introduction", the fifth is called "Interlude", and the last is called "Tragedy Finale".) I first heard Holter's music a few years ago, when a friend played me Monika Enterprise's 4 Women No Cry compilation, and her contributions there were more contained and mixtape-able-- it's a mode I think she can work in but chooses not to here.
As a general rule, I try and avoid album concepts, especially when it gives the album weight it doesn't earn elsewhere. Tragedy, for example, is based on a 2,439-year-old Greek play by Euripedes-- just try and make it seem unimportant after that. Holter has made a dreamy, intense album that aligns with a variety of traditions but, like a lot of great contemporary music, synthesizes them in novel or at least artful ways.
What gets me about it most, though, is its atmosphere and consistency: Sounds I can't identify resonate in the background; drones underpin entire songs without ever intruding. Still, I know Holter has made this possible, and that's what makes me trust her-- that's what makes me acknowledge the album's integrity. Results with other listeners may vary, but one of my favorite moments of Tragedy is listening to the murmuring, disjointed voices fade out in the album's last 30 seconds: That's when I realize how unified it is, hanging like a storm cloud that barely opens up. - Mike Powell


Ekstasis (2012)   rvng.bandcamp.com/album/ekstasis

"I hear a lot of music that's just lazy-- you know, people in their bedrooms singing some shit into the microphone." That's California singer and songwriter Julia Holtertalking to Pitchfork recently. This passage from the interview leapt out at me because it gets at what makes her second full-length album special. Like a lot of home-recorded music in the indie sphere in the last few years, Ekstasis makes heavy use of atmosphere. There's plenty of reverb and vocal tracks are braided together into drones; it's the kind of swirly production that's good for hiding mistakes. But nothing Holter does feels random. This album is above all careful, and its deliberate construction allows it to work on a different plane from most music that scans as "ethereal." Ekstasis is not the sort of oceanic wash you lose yourself in; instead, Holter's music has a way of snapping tiny moments and small sonic gestures into focus.Ekstasis is above all smart, and it makes no apologies for it.
Holter's work exists at the intersection between pop and "serious" music. The mayor of that particular corner is Laurie Anderson, and there are obvious parallels between the two. You can hear Anderson in Holter's flat, chant-like inflection, which allows her music and lyrics to do the emotional work. You can also hear it in her love of simplicity and approach to mixing traditional instrumentation and electronics. Another touchstone is the dark magic of Klaus Nomi. It's not just that the tracks like "Fur Felix" bear a similarity to Nomi tracks like "Keys of Life", there's also an undercurrent of ritualism and theatricality in Holter's music. Ekstasisis certainly mysterious, but not because meaning is hard to pin down; it's more that there are so many possible meanings, so many places to focus your attention.
Listening to Ekstasis, I keep thinking about how it differs from music that feels superficially similar. The music of Julianna Barwick, for example, has liturgical overtones, bringing to mind stone and glass and voices rising in cathedrals. Barwick wants to tap into something beyond words. But Holter's music sounds like it was assembled in a dusty library a floor or two below the sanctuary. It's a few shades darker, but it's also based on ideas first and intuition second. Despite using vocoders, drum machines, and electronics, it feels "old" in part because Holter so deliberately connects her music to the distant past. On her debut album, she did so by basing her songs on a play from ancient Greece by Euripides; here, she pulls words and scenarios from literature and mixes them with her own idiosyncratic approach to words. The songs include quotes from the likes of Virginia Woolf and Frank O'Hara. A line from O'Hara's poem "Having a Coke With You"-- "I look at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world"-- animates "Moni Mon Ami", nestled amid the twinkling synths, strings, and keyboards that sound like harpsichord are original lines like "Hours become years when you're gone!"
Where Holter's Tragedy felt more like a tapestry, with vocal tracks mixed in with instrumental bits and interludes, Ekstasis leans toward proper songs, and it palette is more uniform. "In the Same Room", despite its chintzy drum machine and mechanized hand-claps, is actually a drama unfolding in close quarters. "In this very room, we spent the day and looked over antiquities. Don't you remember?" to which the other character replies, "Do I know you? I can't recall this face but I want to." You see it play out on paper on the lyric sheet and it feels like a linear exchange, but Holter twists the voices together and the narrative folds in on itself. It's there as pure, gorgeous sound if you want it-- you don't need to know what the songs are about to immerse yourself in this record-- but the deeper you go, the more the songs open up.
"I can see you but my eyes are not allowed to cry..." is a lyric from "Goddess Eyes", a new version of a song that appeared on Tragedy. It's a line from the Euripides play that inspired her first album, and it's delivered in processed voice reminiscent of a vocoder. So we have a 2,000-year old phrase run through a device that makes a human sound like a 1970s version of the robots of the future. And at the center of all this time travel stands Julia Holter, pulling in references and sounds from everywhere and shaping them into a music that's both haunting and life-affirming, something to make you dream and think. - Mark Richardson

Julia Holter’s Ekstasis is a challenging album. To be described as challenging, or even difficult in the realms of film and literature, is often a characterization that is delivered with the highest of praise, typically reserved for those works that through their very difficulty impart an emotional or intellectual impact upon their audience that rises to the level of greatness. There is a sense within these mediums that the greatest works of art are those which require the audience to earn their own reward by successfully navigating their dense, complex and multifaceted terrain. This is not, however, typically the case in the medium of popular music.

In approaching Ekstasis, I was a bit concerned that listening to it on my own might be something like reading T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land without a multi-degreed English professor to guide me through the process. Sure, I might get something out of it, but nothing close to the richness of experience that I could gain from an informed and guided reading, one that would help me traverse the maze of literary, religious and cultural allusions that make Eliot’s poem such an important and unparalleled work of literary art. I’m not saying that Holter’s work is in any way comparable with that of T.S. Eliot, though it is quite excellent within the context of her own artistic milieu. Rather, her acknowledged points of reference range for me from the moderately obscure (Laurie Anderson and Arthur Russell) to the totally unfamiliar (medieval European and Indian harmonium music), so I wondered if I would get it on my own or need to find myself an ethnomusicologist or classically trained composer to guide me through it.

Fortunately for me, and for other lovers of innovative and experimental pop music, Holter filters her often obscure sources of inspiration through a musical vernacular that is unquestionably pop. In so doing, she makes a powerful case for the value of challenging her listeners while remaining solidly within the conventions of the popular form. For the reward that her music offers is substantial, as Ekstasis is one of the most unusual and unprecedented indie pop albums to come along in quite awhile.

“Marienbad” opens the album with a sequence of isolated harmonic elements that drift variably in and out of focus: an apreggiated Fender Rhodes line, an accentuated half time harpsichord pattern and Holter’s distinctive, almost esoteric vocal arrangements that are a paradoxical combination of choral complexity and folksy immediacy. At the outset, the song seems poised to float away into some seriously out there, new-agey territory, but then at around the one minute mark, the disparate parts congeal around a simple backbeat of tambourine and kick drum while Holter weaves several distinct, yet intertwining vocal melodies that really dig into the ear, reminding us that we are indeed some place within, albeit marginally, the realm of pop. Another minute later, that sense of fleeting familiarity is somehow both heightened and disturbed as the kick drum builds into a pumping, four-on-the-floor beat and a chorus of indecipherable echoing vocal tones rains down upon the steady rhythm. A moment of lingering silence ushers in the song’s final section which brings all of the various components seamlessly together with a catchy, chanted refrain, spritely keyboards and a laid back disco pulse.

The following track, “Our Sorrows”, is a more straightforward bedroom pop number that foregrounds Holter’s hushed and haunting vocal melody to the backdrop of glittering keyboard atmospherics. Then things take a turn for the gothic (more Horace Walpole than Robert Smith), as Holter’s otherworldly, monastic chanting and scattered, wandering bass lines merge in a beguiling confluence with the underlying pop song structure. These metamorphic properties whereby conditions of immediacy and accessibility converge and unite with more abstract and experimental constructions of sound are the defining characteristics of Holter’s unique approach to her craft, and a theme that runs throughout the entirety of Ekstasis.

“In the Same Room” provides the album’s poppiest moment, in which bright harpsichord tones and MIDI hand clap rhythms carry Holter’s lyrical meditation upon the impossibilities of memory and desire as she sings, “I can’t recall his face / But I want to remember.” Later, on “Für Felix”, she gives her listeners a winking nod to her own musical pretensions, at the same time constructing a strangely catchy number from hand plucked cello strings and chiming Casio tones. The closing track, “This is Ekstasis”, is an expansive nine-minute suite held together through Holter’s use of a medieval isorhythmic technique whereby the prominent bass progression morphs slightly with each repeating line, carrying the song along slowly, almost imperceptibly, from its place of origin to a distant, unrecognizable destination at the album’s close.

Holter claims inspiration for her music in medieval illuminated manuscripts; mysterious, anonymously authored texts that have somehow survived the centuries in all of their ornately textured glory. “When I see them,” she has said, “I hear voices. I am continually following the voices in the gold leaf. I can’t know them but I will follow their beautiful song.” This serves as an apt description for the feeling that one gets when listening to her music. Although the complex layers of meaning and obscure allusions may seem perpetually out of reach to your casual consumer of indie pop music, it is still a beautiful path to follow and the sense of mystery and unknowability that emerges is an essential component of this music’s enjoyment. - Robert Alford 

Fur Felix by Julia Holter from Eric Fensler on Vimeo.

JULIA HOLTER//Ritual Music from Leaving Records on Vimeo.

JJ-december from lady JJ on Vimeo.

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