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Jolie Holland 


Wednesday, May 12 2004
San Francisco singer/songwriter Jolie Holland's 2003 debut album, Catalpa, was a collection of hazy demos that nevertheless won the acclaim of critics worldwide. Now we have her first proper studio recording, Escondida, and while the intriguing murk and mumbled inscrutability of Catalpa have lessened, clearer production and enhanced instrumentation nicely illuminate Holland's mesmerizing talents.

Inspired by a panoply of American music, from front-porch folk and backwater blues to traditional country and New Orleans jazz, Holland's earthy, intimate parlor tunes are paradoxically visceral and ethereal, yet far from cloying or contrived. Holland has a superb command of guitar, piano, and ukulele, and this new album finds her well complemented by skilled musicians on everything from trumpet to musical saw. But it's her voice that is most remarkable. Resembling a mash-up of Billie Holiday, Cat Power's Chan Marshall, and megaplatinum chanteuse Norah Jones, her breathy burble transforms even the most awkward turn of phrase into a chunk of poetic beauty.

From the gypsy shuffle of "Sascha" to the toy-piano intro of "Tiny Idyll/Lil' Missy," the 12 tracks on Escondida are uniformly melodious and oddly spiritual. "Damn Shame" is a gorgeous existential piano ballad; the relatively uptempo Golden State kiss-off "Goodbye California" becomes an anthem to the state's natural beauty; and "Darlin' Ukelele" finds Holland by the ocean in San Francisco, talking to starfish and serenaded by mermaids. Escondida features two archaic covers -- the old British song "Mad Tom of Bedlam" and the Civil War-era "Faded Coat of Blue" -- but this album is no retro-fest. Rather, Holland uses her powerful voice and imagery to infuse creaky music rooted in antiquity with contemporary relevance.

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Mike Rowell


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