Monday, 30 April 2012

Julia Holter, Ekstasis

[longer version of a review first published in The Wire #338]

Julia Holter

Not long ago Julia Holter smitten us with the enigmatic and eccentric Tragedy, one of those records you can’t predict until they happen, a samples and distortions-made vehicle for some really moving vulnerability. Now it turns out simultaneously with those tormented cantilenas she was working on a far sunnier record, though, fittingly with her Greek tragedy fascination, she called it Ekstasis. Well, don’t expect ecstasy in an…ecstatic, climactic way. It’s a rather playful and poppy record, where tremors and anxiety of Tragedy has been calmed by serenity. It is largely due to Holter’s fresh and girly soprano voice, which is far from operatic force, yet manages to express a palette of emotions. Main emotion here is bliss and a mature understanding, what bliss is. There’s nothing that seem to menace this sense of joy, even if, like on Marienbad or In the same room, it can assume at moments quite dramatic form. In the former, playing with her harpsichords and keyboards, she intuitively associated the jumbled construction of the Resnais’ film with the way she puts together fragments of different songs, some upbeat and percussive and some otherworldly and droney, which collapse into each other, just as layers of time and space, people and sculptures collided in the film. Holter displays here remarkable compositional talent and capacity with sound techniques, with virtuosic sound distortions, sampling, and lines of clear voice, which comes in and out. Mostly it’s difficult to work out what’s played and what’s sampled.

I can hear here both the vocal experiments of modern composition and of outré pop, from Salvatore Sciarrino to Laurie Anderson’s pranks with vocoder, but they never come out as second-fresh. It’s because Holter also has a feeling for pop, especially her native California: think the Beach Boys' idea of multilayered pop and candy-like production, a sunny, but flawed Neverland; or Fennesz's Endless Summer - cheerful surf-pop broken with 21st century melancholy. But think also this Scandinavian melancholy cliché, Stina Nordenstam singing on the wind, who nevertheless took modern composition classes, or even "worse", this supposed queen of kitsch, Enya - the latter seem to have a huge, unannounced comeback, at least as an unlikely inspiration for many "good taste" records. It’s also a very dream-pop record, full of long beatless stretches, like the airy, spacey Boy on the Moon, where Harold Budd-like drones encompass Holter’s soprano. What is also intriguing in singer’s approach is her lack of flirtation, delicacy – although it also may limit her palette, because you can’t expect her to go all of a sudden Diamanda Galas or Karen Dalton. On the last track, This is Ekstasis, she puts layers of her voice with brusque drums, reminiscent of  Roxy Music’s Bogus Man, and the displaced random sounds of a saxophone (sic!). Ekstasis is full of such undermining moments, though free of the intentional kitsch that characterises so much contemporary production.

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