Haunting back-porch quirkiness from former Be Good Tanya
Arriving with almost indecent haste just a few months after the UK release of Catalpa, this latest album by the former Be Good Tanya member Jolie Holland continues in the same vein of what she calls “new-time old-time?spooky American fairy tales”, albeit with a band in tow this time. The emphasis here is more on departure and escape, with several songs either lamenting her abandonment or celebrating her own intention to “fly down that road till I get where I’m going to”, as she asserts on opening track “Sascha”.
As before, there’s a quirky, haunted quality to the songs, which have a mythopoeic weight comparable to authentic old-time traditional folk tunes. Set to a lazy back-porch ambience of quiet vibrato guitar chords and the occasional well-placed finger cymbal, a song like “Black Stars” proceeds like a stoned stream of consciousness: “The moon is wizened and it is old as a toad in a Chinese story/The fallen glory of my ego Is laid at the foot of all our purposes And my purpose is to keep on dreaming. Sung in a mild, feathery voice akin to a less damningly cabaret-competent Katie Melua or Norah Jones, the effect is of floating dazedly above worldly matters, like a figure in a Chagall painting.
Occasionally, Holland comes back to earth with a bump, the meandering “Do You?” stumbling dissatisfied to a close with: “What did you do when I called/Did you hear me at all?/You motherfucker, I wanted you”. But there’s a lightness to the arrangements, even when drummer Dave Mihaly is at his most industriously attentive, that ensures the songs are allowed to find their own altitude. The settings are varied but rarely derivative, ranging from the old-time Tom Waitsian horns of “Old Fashion Morphine” to the fragile combination of ukelele, bowed saw, kalimba and whistling with which she serenades her “Darlin’ Ukelele”.
The result is another relaxed but enigmatic foray into modernist roots territory to stand alongside records by Gillian Welch, Laura Veirs Sparklehorse and Bonnie “Prince” Billy.