Intimate Sketches

Jolie Holland

Catalpa (Anti/Epitaph 6691-2)

One of the most attractive sounds on the first Be Good Tanyas CD was Jolie
Holland’s voice, whether providing harmonies or featuring more prominently on
‘Lakes Of Pontchartrain’ and ‘The Littlest Birds’. The distinctive way she could
phrase a line coupled with her Houston, Texas accent added something special to
an album that already had plenty to offer.

Not surprisingly, her solo CD has been garnering a good deal of praise from
all sorts of people, like Tom Waits, as well as most of the music press. So I
tried to turn my ears away from the hyperbole when listening. Then, rightly or
not, I went straight to her solo rendition of ‘The Littlest Birds’, hoping it
might at least get close to the BGT version. I needn’t have worried. It is
obviously a more spare reading with just her voice and guitar but it is still
beguiling. What it misses in the swing of the original it makes up for in
casual, low-key charm. Throughout the CD what is particularly appealing is the fact that she
sounds as though she sings these songs because she enjoys them, whether they’re
her own or someone else’s. ‘All The Morning Birds’ for example, features the
refreshing purity and clarity of her singing – and whistling – as it follows a
wonderfully meandering melody. The whole thing just radiates her ease and
pleasure in performing and this is easily conveyed to the listener.

Her voice is more strident on ‘Black Hand Blues’ which isn’t one of her
own, but is eminently suited to her unforced and natural phrasing. I’m certain
that in another era she could have been one of those blues singers who were able
to send shivers down the most unmoving of spines with her chill delivery. At
some distance from that is her setting of Yeats’ poem ‘Wandering Angus’ which
also features the embellishing textures of Brian Miller’s electric guitar
bringing a clear and spacious dimension to the piece. Her ‘Demon Lover improv’
is really a snatch from ‘House Carpenter’ woven into an instrumental feature. A
tantalizing snippet of another chilling song from the tradition.

Apparently as part of her self taught approach she learned some of Syd
Barrett’s songs, which may seem a strange choice. Actually, aside from her
borrowing from his ‘Jugband Blues’ she does manage to re-create a hint of that
strangely intimate quality that especially haunts Barrett’s first solo album.
Play either of these CDs late at night and that intimacy does become truly
spooky but equally compelling.

There is something of the ingénue about this music too, as though she was
literally unaware of what effect the songs might have. She even alludes to this
in her notes, calling the album a ‘rough sketch’ which was never actually
intended for a wide audience. Whatever, I hope that she can retain some of this
feel on future work because this album is something quite rare and engaging and
doesn’t need too much polish. It seems the hype got it right this time.

Author: Paul Donnelly