Sunday, October 28, 2007

Jolie Holland: "I used to be an angel now I'm just like everybody else/I left my wings in the gutter and my halo's lost, dusty on a shelf"

Jolie Holland holds the accolade of playing one of the best and one of the worst gigs I have ever been to.

Hailing from Houston, Texas, Ms Holland made her name with (and was a founding member of) The Be Good Tanyas, before releasing her first solo effort, Catalpa, in 2003. Catalpa was recorded in a home studio and was never intended for release. The sound quality is appalling, but the songs are beautiful and Holland's languid voice beguiling. The opening line, on the song Alley Flowers, is the wonderful "Some people say I got a psychadelic presence/Shining in the park with a bioluminescence".

2004 brought Escondida, a much more polished studio consignment, and one which brought her to the attention of the music press in a big way. Holland's strange, almost eerie intonation and phrasing were captivating, sounding like nothing that had been heard before, whilst somehow still managing to sound like old-time music from decades past. Her jazzy-bluesy voice (of, almost unbelievably, a woman then aged only 29) ambled its way through folk-tinged, country-styled numbers...this was rootsy, yet somehow fresh.

It was shortly after the release of Escondida that I first saw Holland playing live. The venue was the Live Theatre in Newcastle, a small and charming place for which I have always had something of a soft spot (and which, following a regeneration, has very recently reopened). She came on stage, in a rather odd and mismatched outfit, every bit the small town gal. She was as humble as she was mesmerising. The band was astoundingly good...these people were true musicians, and this included Holland, who turned her hand to guitar and ukelele (and, as I remember, fiddle too). Her natural talent was obvious and she seemed sweet and shy as she introduced each song in a drawl so thick you couldn't help but warm to her. I really felt, on this night, that I had been let in on some very special secret. I even got a hug from the woman herself at the end of the gig and came away feeling high and happy, like my soul had grown a little.

In addition to songs from the two albums she had released, she played us a new song that she had been working on, called Moonshiner, which we were later to hear on her 2006 album Springtime Can Kill You. For me, this release was somewhat disappointing; and from someone I had thought could do no wrong. The captivating voice was still there, and it still sounded pleasant, but the songs just did not engage me and etch themselves into my consciousness as those on the previous two albums. I would be hard pressed, even now, to hum any of them for you, or to name any beyond the title track and the aforementioned Moonshiner.

But when I found out Holland was going to be touring again I was keen to get in on the action, having enjoyed my evening so much previously. Gutted was I, then, to find that she wouldn't be coming to the UK. And ecstatic when I realised that she was to be playing in San Francisco during the time some friends and I were going to be there! As soon as they went on sale, I booked three tickets over the internet (how jet-setting am I booking tickets for a concert on another continent?!).

So, having seriously 'bigged her up' to my friends, who had never heard of her, we spent that day pootling up through Chinatown, past the Transamerica Pyramid, calling in at the infamous City Lights book store, before taking in Lombard Street and North Beach. Our destination was Bimbo's 365, where Ms Holland would be playing.
After waiting in line outside for eons we finally got in, only to find out that almost every seat in the house had been reserved in advance (which, as 'auslanders' we could not have known). We took some seats right near the back and decided to get a drink...which was extortionate, particularly if, as expected, you took advantage of the table service. The venue itself was capacious, yet somehow still quite dingy and, however many miles it was that we were from the stage, our vantage point was disappointing. But not to worry - she would be so excellent that it would be as if warm honey had been poured into my friends' virgin ears and this wouldn't matter a jot!
Sadly, I was mistaken.
She took to the stage looking somewhat bewildered and lackadaisical, demanding that someone bring her bag, which she had left backstage, to her. Then followed an entire evening's worth of dull meanderings, reworkings of every song so that they became tuneless, pointless and, frankly, boring. I was so disappointed...and embarrassed to have sung her praises so highly when this had been my friends' introduction to her music! We even considered getting out our pack of cards to keep us entertained, but general Britishness prevented this!
Every single song was completely immemorable and Ms Holland appeared to have picked up quite an attitude somewhere along the way. No longer the charming, unassuming woman sitting in front of us, this was someone who told a girl at the front of the audience to be quiet (fair enough) whilst she was on stage, addressing her as "Baby doll" (patronising, quite rude and not fair enough!). When the evening finally wound to a close my friends were so infused with ennui that they didn't even feel like going on elsewhere for a post-gig drink.
There is a lesson in here somewhere I am sure. Perhaps it is about not putting people on a pedestal, perhaps it is about taking each individual experience for what it is and not expecting to be able to recreate it. Perhaps it is simply that one should keep one's expectations low?
Below are a couple of free-to-download MP3s I found on the internet (I am ever so proud of myself for understanding source code enough to post them on here!). They are worth a listen, despite the negative tone of the second half of the article itself. To me they sound quite bewitching, and only slightly sullied by my disappointment in the way Jolie Holland has gone! I would still thoroughly recommended the first two albums, particularly Escondida...definitely worth an investment.

Download Free MP3 - I Wanna Die (from Catalpa)

Download Free MP3 - Old Fashioned Morphine (from Escondida)


Preposterous Ponderings said...

I have never even heard of her until now.

I am off to listen to the MP3's you posted. Thanks!

Divinyl said...

I hope you like them! Let me know what you think. x

surya said...

hi you have a cool blog....just blogroll me 2

Divinyl said...

Hi...and thanks :o)

I'm not sure what 'blogroll' means I am afraid, but I will certainly check it out! Thank you for looking...and reading. D.x

Anonymous said...

Jolie Holland is amazing.

If you like her, listen to the rest of the Anti- artists on their sampler. It's great.

You can download it OR stream it: