I often quietly complain about the productivity of modern musicians; disparagingly comparing the likes of Arcade Fire (3 albums in 12 years) to bands like Creedence Clearwater (a 4 year career that produced 7 albums, including 3 in 1969) and asking why they can’t make music at a rate that even comes close to this. Touring, side projects and personal lives are reasonable explanations, but one section of the industry seems peculiarly free of these obligations: Singer-songwriters.
Loud City Song is Californian Julia Holter’s third album in as many years, each being released to widespread acclaim, and in particular her latest effort. What is perhaps most notable about her releases, more so than the speed and consistency with which they’re churned out, is the steady progress of each new effort. Blessed with an angelic voice and an ear for the kind of off-beat baroque instrumentation Brian Wilson would call a ‘pocket orchestra’, Holter’s previous efforts, whilst they undoubtedly contain moments of pure inspiration (see Marienbad off last year’s Ekstasis), were unfocused and overlong. Ekstasis went some way to cleaning up the abstract spacey-ness of Tragedy and turning them into proper songs, but Loud City Song is her first album to demonstrate maturity and restraint to go along with her prodigious talent.
Whilst both Tragedy and Ekstasis were interesting in their experimentalism and diversity, they were also painfully drawn out and contained their fair share of misses to go with the hits. Loud City Song is her first album that feels truly whole; dropping some of the experimentation for cohesion and some of the wanderings for self-contained satisfaction. You might drop into Holter’s previous efforts for one or two songs, on Loud City Song you stay for the whole show.
Album opener World is a rather limp beginning (one of those singer-songwriter clichés – the emotional acoustic ballad), but Maxim’s I more than makes up for it. Haunting, beautiful and timeless; it mixes the deranged choral theatrics of Owen Pallet’s Heartland with the harmonising and complex structuring of vintage Beach Boys, and then throws in some Stereolab jazzy dream-pop on top of it all. The song encapsulates the strikingly beautiful yet unnervingly sinister soul of the album – ‘Tonight the bird’s are watching me…drink some blood…if you wanna be startin’ something…’ – reminiscent at times of a poppier, more bombastic and less immediately unsettling Lisa Germano.
I could rhyme off a dozen more artists Holter shares similarities to, but ultimately her sound remains a unique and highly varied one. In a way she reminds a great deal of Austra – a powerful, unique voice; a distinct yet familiar sound; the poppy mixed with the choral.
But the difference is that Holter is an infinitely more mature and complex act. Where Austra lapse into repetition, Holter dances from sound to sound, tossing in hints of jazz, synth-pop, baroque and anything else that strikes her fancy along the way. Where Austra sound ‘nice’ and are undeniably pretty at times, Holter stirs up a wealth of emotions with her music.
Yet another leap forward for Holter, Loud City Song represents her most accomplished and complete work yet. Benefiting enormously from a more frugal approach to run-time, the album avoids the pitfalls of over-indulgence that snagged her previous, more adventurous, but equally, more flawed, albums. It lacks a song of the kind of genius like that seen on Marienbad, but it contains its fair share of spectacular moments – most notably MJ spouting Maxim’s I and II – and less of the dull ones. Bold, brilliant and at times explosive, Holter is so much more than just a pretty voice.
Listen to: Maxim’s I & II, Horns Surrounding Me, This Is A True Heart