Monday, May 15, 2006

First impressions: Jolie Holland, Springtime Can Kill You

This one may be a tough sell; after all, Jolie Holland's new album, Springtime Can Kill You, isn't for everyone.

It's not an album for those craving big pop hooks; slick, radio-ready production; wild, eclectic, Sufjan-y arrangements or jubilant celebrations. Nor is it an album for the impatient, or for those with a distaste for melancholy, whiskey-sour midnight folk music.

Rather, it's an album for those who love the simple, disarming power of the human voice-- and oh, what a voice! Falling somewhere between Karin Bergquist and Leslie Feist, Holland's voice is sometimes heartbreaking in its grief, sometimes so sexy it'll make you break out sweating. It's the most potent weapon in her arsenal, and she knows it-- she plays with it, contorts it, stretches out those long vowels and phrases her songs with the precision of an actor. Springtime Can Kill You is the best singer record I've heard all year.

It's also an album for those who love poetry-- Holland's lyrics seem simple at first, but they open up to be surprisingly complex meditations on love, lust, loneliness, and longing. Recurring images-- changing seasons, birdsong, moonshine, dreams-- weave their way throughout the album, connecting both the originals and the three covers into something cohesive, something with vision.

It's an album for those who appreciate the great tradition of American song-- though these are all intimate, front-parlor folk songs at their heart, Holland paints them in subtle shades of country, jazz, and rock. "Stubborn Beast" and "Moonshiner" sway with a seductive country strut; "Crazy Dreams" is a feverish, punch-drunk pop ballad; "You're Not Satisfied" is an off-kilter Dixieland jazz number from the other side of midnight; "Mexican Blue" is an odd, epic closer that you won't believe.

And, it's an album for those who prefer a clean, unobtrusive production and the sounds of creaky old acoustic instruments-- the album is populated with horns, organs, acoustic guitars, steel guitars, upright bass, and lots of piano.

So yes, it's slow-moving. It's laid-back and patient. It's beautiful. It's profound. It's reminiscent of Over the Rhine's Good Dog Bad Dog, in all the right ways. And, for this listener, it just might be 2006's Album of the Year.


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