REVIEW: Jolie Holland: Catalpa
Jolie Holland: Catalpa [self-released, 2003 - buy!] (samples)
Three words? rose shadow ache
Jolie Holland's beautiful debut album, Catalpa, is the very essence of independence. There is no record-label's imprint, no barcode; the contributors' names are written in small gold letters; the contact address is simply email@example.com. The music itself is bare, lo-fi: the flutter of Holland's voice and murmurs of guitar, saw, ukelele and drum. Holland sings with the strident, earnest longing of Gillian Welch, but so too is there the flip side of independence - the lonely, bottomed-out ache of Joni Mitchell's Blue.
Yes, it's a sad album - the instrumental "Demon Lover Improv" recalls the concealed melancholy of Pink Moon - but there is something bold, daring almost, in the sad strum of Holland's guitar... These songs look grief in the eye, they wait for joy and know that they may be forced to wait forever. On "I Wanna Die," the resignation and resilience gives way to a jubilant, determined will to escape: "I wanna die / I don't care how, I'm getting out / down south of Louisiana / and lonesome highway sounds." "Alley Flowers" imagines William Shakespeare begging on the street, images of vagabonds and orphans, all of whom "got to shine / ain't nobody's goin' to shine / like you got to shine / in this world."
Catalpa is a far cry from hollow feel-good music, however; it's the long, long tradition of American blues and folk, the thing that lets Holland's voice rise like a yellow dawn on "All The Morning Birds," hope and love blossoming despite a coat "old ... and thin," despite the missing friends, the long-lost lovers.
Holland's voice is a light, winged marvel: a lullaby of roses and ashes. Catalpa supports it with carefully chosen instances of double-tracked vocals. Vancouver's The Be Good Tanyas, which Holland co-founded (and left following The Blue Horse), join her on the twangy bounce of "Mule on de Mount." Five of the thirteen songs are written by others, and yet Holland - like the best folk singers - claims them for her own. Never (except perhaps during the howdown of "Mule on de Mount") does a word pass her lips that does not ring with the pure, silver sound of truth. Bluegrass is not a genre for liars or pretenders: there is little room to hide in the sparest of arrangements, the melodies sleek as loons.
Catalpa is poignant and sure; it is altogether excellent and deserves to be heard. With so many noisy, convoluted concerns to be overwhelmed with, it is glorious to stumble across such a sweet, lake-bright thing. Jolie Holland sings with the brave sort of independence that makes us all yearn to be free.