Thankfully the transition from lo-fi spare room demo to recording studio hasn’t
harmed the sound or spirit of Jolie Holland’s work.
Catalpa was a rare and mysteriously compelling release that relied, for
some of its charm at least, on the surroundings in which it was made. The
clarity of this new one enhances rather than detracts from the seductive
qualities of the former and ensures the intimacy of her singing is still the
CD’s prime focus. Her unforced phrasing and wonderful accent are captured intact
and deliver the songs in a way that is, perhaps, unique.
If anything Escondida has an even more charming and inviting sound
with some subtle additions and colors being brought to songs that still sound as
though they might have been conceived on a mythical back porch somewhere. She
takes in jazz, blues, folk and country influences and mixes then easily. It is
also difficult at times to tell which are originals and which come from a well
worn tradition. To her credit most of the songs are her own.
The resigned blues inflections on ‘Poor Girl’ couple effectively with minimal
slide and acoustic guitar and, eerily, her vocals echo the otherworldly voice of
Canned Heat’s Al Wilson. This is evident too on ‘Lil’ Missy where she bends the
notes in the same plaintive way. That track also benefits from an unfussy
trumpet solo, just one of the complementary colorings to be found here.
There is more subtle brass on ‘Old Fashion Morphine’ where she mingles the blues
and the spiritual. The latter element also infuses ‘Amen’, a traveling love song
with only muted piano, more of which accompanies her on ‘Damn Shame’, which is
graced by poetic lines like – ‘the smell of burnt exhaust drifts into the bar,
it’s midnight in California, it’s high noon where you are’
The chords on ‘Goodbye California’ must have appeared on many a tune out of
Nashville but here the words manage to be removed from country cliché whilst
referring to age old notions of moving on. A weirdly compelling mixture, the
song declaims and swaggers through its spirited farewells aided by more of that
liquid slide guitar. And she is equally at home on the British trad song ‘Mad
Tom Of Bedlam’ where she has nothing more than brushed drums to support her
hectic vocals. It’s combinations like these that make Jolie Holland worth much
more than a cursory listen.
It is a real joy to hear this music especially in an age of bland
manufactured female singers. She has her own track to follow in her own way. She
is the real thing and I look forward to hearing where she ends up next.