Singer and songwriter Jolie Holland has immersed herself in the love of the various American musics since the very beginning of her career. From country and folk to blues, gospel, jazz, and 19th century parlor songs, she has always translated these forms with uncommon depth and understanding in her uniquely revealing songs. That said, Wine Dark Sea is somewhat of a departure.
At her recent Great Hall show, Jolie Holland seemed past ready to burst out of her singer/songwriter role and into full-on jam band mode. Problem was, her vocals - and songs - tended to retreat behind the cloud of guitars. Not so on her sixth record. Wine Dark Sea is a brilliantly track-listed album, stronger as a whole than broken into parts.
Never one to tread water, Jolie Holland’s follow-up to the languorous country jazz of 2011’s excellent Pint Of Blood sees her treating her brand of Americana to an altogether more tempestuous, sultry makeover. Working with a mixture of traditional New York jazz musicians and experimental veterans, Holland has added a dirty, bluesy string to her bow that sees her at times evoking long-time champion of her work, Tom Waits. Opener On And On sets out Holland’s stall from the off.
Ten years into her recording career that has yielded five albums, Jolie Holland has before toyed with American musical forms: the jazz-tinged Springtime Can Kill You from 2006 gave way to the country patina of 2008’s The Living and the Dead, which begat the lo-fi collection of set poems on 2011’s Pint of Blood with her band the Grand Chandeliers subtly filling in the spaces. Distilling these elements with an infusion of blues, soul and avant-garde energy, Holland ups the decibels on her latest album, Wine Dark Sea. Now working with an ensemble cast of musicians from New York’s experimental music scene, including two drummers, a quartet of guitars, squawking horns and woodwinds, Wine Dark Sea begins with a rumble of fuzz and feedback on the intentionally maudlin opener, “On and On”.
For most artists, change is inevitable. Maybe after five albums, Jolie Holland looked up and saw the corner she’d painted herself into and realized the perspective didn’t feed her in the way it used to. After years of producing pleasing, melodic collections of music in a folk and alt-country vein, it sounds like she made a decision to toss it all for her new album and try something different.
Since the release of early albums like Catalpa and Escondida, Texas troubadour Jolie Holland has carved herself a unique niche as a modern artist with an ear for the old-fashioned. Like Andrew Bird — probably her closest stylistic contemporary — Holland finds fertile ground in the sounds of classic folk and pop songwriting, made more earnest or emotionally intense through her own honest lyrical take. It’s a bit surprising, then, to hear her sixth album, Wine Dark Sea, open with some raw and noisy guitars.
An “acquired taste,” as they say, Jolie Holland is not for everyone, but she’s a real gift to those who believe in her knotty, quixotic take on American roots music. Since her 2003 solo debut, “Catalpa,” Holland has added increasingly jagged edges and brittle textures to her songs rooted in folk, country, jazz, and blues traditions. Holland is hard to pin down, as a songwriter and especially as a singer.
A onetime member of the alt-folk outfit, the Be Good Tanyas, Jolie Holland has always made it a point to defy easy categorization. So while Wine Dark Sea offers some insights, it adds enough ambiguity to keep listeners at arm’s length. Boasting the swagger and sway of a sultry chanteuse, Holland amps up the attitude, and though many of these songs tend to ramble and meander, her smoking sensuality consistently comes to the fore.