Exploring the unknown spaces of the known
Julia Holter’s latest album delivers the best of avant-garde music
Loud City Song
Released Aug. 20, 2013
For the Los Angeles-based experimental musician Julia Holter, having creative blocks and receiving only sporadic artistic epiphanies does not seem to be an option. Her debut album Tragedy was released in 2011, immediately accompanied by the sophomore follow-up Ekstasis in 2012 and the third full-length album Loud City Song released this year. Keeping in mind that many critically acclaimed contemporary musicians take more than a few years between releasing their albums, it might be tempting to assume that Holter prefers quantity over quality. Yet, at only twenty-eight years of age, Holter — a musically-trained CalArts alumna — delivers stronger and richer material with each subsequent album.
Her first two albums were recorded solo and were based on distinct concepts. Taking inspiration from literature and timeless stories such as certain Greek tragedies, Holter incorporated layers of her own tales and observations into a successful experimentation of hazy electronic, atmospheric, and soothing music. While some of these attempts, such as the track “Marienbad” from Ekstasis, manage to showcase Holter at the peak of her creativity, her artistic core did not emerge to its full glory until her newest album Loud City Song.
This artistic progress did not happen on its own, but was accompanied by some notable changes — the album was recorded with a music ensemble, its core themes were not united by historical stories (although the album was partially inspired by the film “Gigi”), and the electronic sounds were largely replaced by lush and varied instrumentation. Ironically, even with the lack of a central and uniting theme, Loud City Song turns out to be Holter’s most structured work.
Thematically, Holter once again builds the levels of the story by drawing references to her own life, but this time to non-imaginary tales that revolve around seemingly everyday topics, such as intimacy, rights to privacy, anxiety, relationships, and freedom. For an L.A. native, where the everyday motions of regular people go unnoticed, yet there is pressing scrutiny of celebrities, the concepts of solitude and privacy have a particularly relevant meaning. The album’s two complementary tracks, “Maxim’s I” and “Maxim’s II,” reflect each other musically and both address this topic through their shared opening lines: “Tonight the birds are watching me / Do they have more important things to do?” To add in an extra sense of the agonizing pressure of the showbiz society, Holter opens “Horns Surrounding Me” with the sounds of someone running, breathing heavily and whispering during an escape for freedom, just before the pounding sounds of heavy bass and frantic horns surround Holter’s echoing voice while she shrills the three words of the track’s name.
Musically, Holter maximizes the presence of the music ensemble and unites her characteristic experimental flavor with traditional orchestral instruments. “In the Green Wild” opens with a rhythm-driving pizzicato (while Holter swirls her lyrics with occasional vocal inserts “wah wah!”) and closes with an iterative and haunting celestial tune in the background as she sings in a high-pitch tone: “hah ah hah.” One of Holter’s most ambitious tracks, a cover of Barbara Lewis’s song “Hello Stranger,” balances the album halfway through by driving the first few musically-dense tracks into a 6-minute long minimalistic ambient experimentation. The 1963 hit single, known as the catchy rhythmical oldie driven by the back-up vocals singing “shoo-bop, shoo-bop, my baby,” becomes a dreamy state of a peaceful purgatory with the sound of seagulls in the background, and Holter’s fainting voice whispering “Hello, stranger / It seems so good to see you back again.” The album’s most upbeat track, the light-jazzy and slow-jam “This Is a True Heart,” colors the album with enough exotic sounds (if you listen very carefully, you’ll notice a subtle and perhaps accidental sound of Balkan folk in the opening horns), but gives that necessary kick of dance rhythm that completes the album’s essence.
Holter’s music is certainly experimental, but it is far from being unsafe and boldly risky. Yet, there is something interesting about the way she explores the spaces of the known — whether it’s doing a cover of a 1963 track or simply recording someone running. She knows how to deliver the unexplored and unknown of these commonplace ideas and fully involve the listener. All of this serves to prove that Holter is an unquestionable avant-garde artist and that her newest album is an excellent piece of work.
And, most importantly, Loud City Song is not the kind of album that can be played just to sing along to two or three tracks on repeat. It requires full attention, dedication and willingness to surrender to the complex and beautifully-layered musical composition. Every track on this album serves a purpose and brings a unique flavor to Holter’s captivating storytelling. If you decide to allow Holter to guide you through a landscape of strings, horns, bass and celestial vocals, you will find yourself internalizing her memories and experiencing a world that you’ve never seen or felt before. At the same time, when the album ends with the lulling “City Appearing,” Holter’s voice will leave you with the most intriguing feeling of déjà vu and you will be pleading to hear more.
Highlight tracks: “Horns Surrounding Me,” “In the Green Wild,” “Maxim’s II,” “This Is a True Heart,” “Hello Stranger.”