Wild Mercury Sound

Julia Holter, London Cafe Oto, June 1, 2012

Julia Holter, London Cafe Oto, June 1, 2012
John Mulvey

A day or two before Julia Holter’s show at Café Oto, I tweeted something fairly dumb about not understanding why she hadn’t received anything like the same amount of hype as Grimes this year, based on my admittedly rather idiosyncratic idea that, amidst the reveries and abstractions, Holter has a knack for subtly accessible pop music.

It doesn’t take long at this debut London show to understand that Holter’s music comes from, or at least currently exists in, a quite different place. The point is hammered home long before she actually takes the stage, as the two support acts are the two other members of her band, Chris Votek and Corey Fogel. Votek is a cellist, who has transcribed mesmerising Indian vocal ragas for his instrument: the effect is beautiful, not least because the results remind me of one of my favourite records, Terry Riley’s “Persian Surgery Dervishes”. Fogel is an inventive jazz drummer, who has assembled a pick-up band (composed of Votek on cello, plus a double bassist, electric bassist and pianist) to flesh out his semi-structured improvisations.

Given Fogel’s sprung and rattling way around the parameters of a rhythm, and Votek’s meditative deep tones, it’s hard to imagine that a live show will privilege Julia Holter’s covert pop instincts. And so it turns out. I’d imagined before the show that her most immediate tunes, like “Goddess Eyes”, would turn out to be the substance of the gig. But in fact, it’s a show that is heavy on fragility and otherness; even these relatively robust hooks have their glassiness, their ethereal qualities pushed to the fore.

The electronic sheen of “Ekstasis” (a definite favourite of 2012, which I wrote about here) might suggest that Holter’s live shows would sound something more like Broadcast, but it’s the airiness, the starkness, which is most striking here. Holter plays a keyboard but doesn’t use much in the way of effects or loops. Instead, even on “Marienbad”, the ghostly sense of dislocation seems to be generated by the spaces between notes rather than a layering, a density of sound.

Corey Fogel’s occasional bursts of activity can sometimes feel like a disruption (I’m reminded of the way Neal Morgan works his way through some Joanna Newsom songs), but mostly it seems as if Holter has assembled a small and exploratory group of musicians to take her songs somewhere different. While the show’s highlights come when she moves away into a drifting interspace on the likes of “This Is Ekstasis”, “Try To Make Yourself A Work Of Art” and especially “Boy In The Moon”, it also feels like the songs are open-ended and silvery, but also more pliable and substantive than might have been expected; that they can change shape and thrive in radical treatments.

Holter, one suspects, might turn out to be one of those artists who can reconfigure her band and her sound with each record and tour, while still retaining a very specific musical identity (it may be extrapolating too much, but the drapery of her top tonight seems subtly, suitably Greco-Roman in design). Another London show tonight with Peaking Lights, I think: leave me a message if you’ve seen the tour – I have no idea what she must have sounded like in a lunchtime slot at Field Day.

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