Intimate Sketches
JOLIE HOLLAND : Catalpa (Anti/Epitaph 6691-2)
One of the most attractive sounds on the Be Good Tanyas ‘Blue Horse’ cd was Jolie Holland’s voice, whether adding 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 accent added something special to an album that already had plenty to offer.

Not surprisingly, her solo cd has been garnering plaudits from all comers, including Tom Waits and most of the music press, so I tried to keep an ear resolutely turned away from the hyperbole when listening. Then, rightly or wrongly, I went straight for 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 this simply makes it even more beguiling. Whilst it may be missing some of the swing of the group session it conveys plenty of 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 the meanderings of the melody. The whole thing just radiates her ease and pleasure in performing, something which can readily infect the listener.

Her voice becomes slightly more strident on ‘Black Hand Blues’, which isn’t one of her tunes, but is eminently suited to her unforced phrasing. I’m sure, in another era, she could have been a blues singer able to send a shiver down the most unbending of spines with her chill delivery. At some remove from that is the setting of a W.B. Yeats poem ‘Wandering Angus’ which is possibly the most embellished track on the cd with Brian Miller’s electric guitar adding a ringing and spacious dimension that sets it apart. And what she calls ‘Demon Lover Improv’ is just that, a primarily instrumental workout that develops into a snatch of ‘House Carpenter’ the traditional ballad in which the devil shows up in the guise of a lover.

I was interested to read that as a self-taught musician she began learning some of Syd Barrett’s songs, which may seem unusual, I mean English psychedelic eccentric meets Texan chanteuse. But apart from her borrowing a few lines of ‘Jugband Blues’ she has actually managed to create more than 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 also an air of the ingénue about this music, as though she was literally unaware of what effect these songs might have. She even alludes to this in her notes saying that the album is a ‘rough sketch’ which was never really intend for a wide public. If this is so, and I’m sure it is, it may be difficult to replicate it now that she is on the roster of a larger company. Perhaps she doesn’t want to repeat anything but I hope she can at least retain some of the feel of these recordings because they contain something quite rare and engaging that doesn’t need polishing up. The hype seems to have got it right.

© 2004 Paul Donnelly