In her live shows and on recordings, Jolie Holland delivers performances of such intimacy that one at first feels like an eavesdropper. As if you’re the ghost in the room while she confides in a close friend or lover, or is simply singing her heart out for her own emotional benefit. Her demeanor is neither hostile nor ingratiating. She simply sings for her own satisfaction, hoping too that you as a listener derive some inspiration or delight. She’s got me. I do.
Having followed her career I’m struck by her determination to follow her own muse. It defines her. Never more so than on the new recording with her band the Grand Chandeliers, Pint of Blood. She’s made records that were poppier (The Living and the Dead), rootsier (Escondida) and more intimate. As one who finds her songs charming, if sometimes shapeless, I’ll confess a fondness for the near-pop of The Living and the Dead. On Pint of Blood, Holland’s tunes sound effortless, but they don’t always stick with you at first listen. But having listened many times to Pint of Blood, and having been caught in her live spell at the Record Bar in Kansas City recently, I will concede that the spell she wields is increasingly seductive with exposure.
Allegedly influenced by Neil Young, and the Zuma album in particular, Holland’s sound on Pint is electric, but evanescent. It may feature some of the standard rock vernacular – Holland’s own primarily electric rhythm guitar, Grey Gersten’s incisive guitar work, and Shazad Ismaily’s supple one-man rhythm section (he plays a lot of drums and bass) – Pint is not a rock album. Okay, you could say that the Stones’ epic Exile on Main Street is too genre diverse (and it is) to be just a rock ‘n’ roll record. And you’d be wrong – because the slam of the backbeat is always of the Rolling Stones’ essence. On the other hand, Holland is not committed to any genre. Her singing is evocative of Patty Waters – a brilliant singer, nominally jazz, whose artistry couldn’t be bound by idiom.
Opening with the hushed, confidential tones of “All Those Girls,” Holland reminds a little of both Lucinda Williams and Madeleine Peyroux. The Zuma vibe is felt in Gersten’s guitar solo, even as Ismaily’s drumming echoes Kenny Buttrey’s playing on Dylan’s John Wesley Harding. Caught between disbelief and confession, Holland sings of love that goes “into the core of this burning world.” She’s not a lady for half measures.
“Remember” is one of Pint of Blood’s more immediately arresting numbers, but when she flirts with a direct pop song Holland’s overdubbed vocals still suggest something thorny and incompliant, even as her basic message to a lover is simple enough; “if you don’t catch me when I fall for you I’m gonna have to remember how to fly.” Holland’s kinship with Karen Dalton is clear on the wounded “Tender Mirror” – love turns to sorrow and rejection, Holland’s tender vocal counterpoints evoking more than any standard two-part harmony.
For “June” Holland needs only 2:36 to impart an imagistic poem full of beauty, sweetness and languor. She also plays a great fiddle on this tune. “Wreckage” shares, perhaps, with “Remember,” the distinction of being the album’s closest thing to catchy. Holland sings “if disappointment was a drug I overdosed again,” as handclaps and Ismaily’s drumming give the arrangement a lift.
There’s an Afro-pop lilt to “Little Birds,” the primary influence seems to be Malian guitar music, along with a touch of highlife. About the delicate tension between the yearning to roam and settling into love, the song suggests at least a little Rickie Lee Jones influence.
All this citation is great, and I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think it shed light. But the real story here is the singularity of Holland’s art, even when it’s maddeningly opaque it is still distinctive. There may be something of Skip James’ ghost lingering around “The Devil’s Sake,” especially in guest Chandelier Marc Ribot’s thrilling slide guitar (and slide ukulele), but it’s Holland’s unique absorption and reflection of the blues, country and folk narrative traditions that haunts you. One track that hasn’t cornered me yet is her closing shot at Townes Van Zandt’s “Rex’s Blues.” Right now I just hanker for the direct, literary voice of Van Zandt on this song. But as often happens with Holland’s music, I may be a convert by the time you read this. That’s how it works with the supple, enchanting art of Jolie Holland. As a songwriter she’s an impressive work in progress (who isn't, right?). As a singer she’s already in a class of her own, Pint of Blood demonstrates that. Whatever your first impression of her music, hang around her long enough she pulls you in.