By BYARD DUNCAN
William Winant Percussion Group
Sunday, April 29, 2011
Rickshaw Stop, San Francisco
Better than: Trying to figure out how the hell to remove that "a cappella voices" setting from your new synth.
Julia Holter doesn't so much strut onstage as she does just sort of quiver into view like a desert apparition. Her hair is pulled back in a wavy black clump, and a knit dress clings to her shoulders. Her set, which lasts just over an hour, begins with a warning.
"I just got this keyboard," she says. "I'm sorry I don't know how to use it."
In a way, this entrance is fitting: Holter's sophomore album, Ekstasis, is a haunting and kaleidoscopic interrogation of secure musical conventions. Its lyrics are cryptic, and its reverb-drenched instrumentation sounds at times like spirits moaning as they try to escape from a locked box. Holter, a classically-trained pianist, is most comfortable when wandering across Ekstasis' sonic landscape, documenting her sorrows with a harpsichord and a mini tower of vocal tracks. She's not, in other words, the acoustic guitar-wielding type.
But in a live setting, the things that make Ekstasis shimmer -- its effects-dipped production, its structural ambiguities -- don't jibe with Holter's stage presence. Stripped of their post-production flourishes and performed by a three-piece ensemble (Holter on her keyboard, alongside a drummer and a cellist), the album's songs become skeletal and raw. There's potential here to expand Ekstasis' impact into new territory, but Holter -- clearly accustomed to building songs as opposed to simply playing them -- remains aloof.
When she gets comfortable enough to strip her music down, the results are stunning. Her rendition of "In the Same Room" blooms and pulses with even more vigor than on the record; the pain and reluctance behind "Goddess Eyes I" feels more sincere when Holter allows herself to fully inhabit the character she's created. Trimmed of all effects, the song's refrain -- "I can see you but my eyes are not allowed to cry" -- sounds both desperate and sultry.
The problem is that these songs end, and once they do, we are promptly ejected from Holter's visceral space and asked to endure spates of self-deprecation, insincere chitchat, and the occasional 20 or so seconds of total silence as she fiddles with the knobs on her keyboard. The songs that follow these moments -- tonight, they include "Marienbad" and "Moni mon amie" -- end up acting more as placeholders than as statements; they are stops on the long slog back to a sincere and potent performance.
There's no doubt that Holter has a keen ear for arrangement and orchestration. Performed live, her songs erupt, fold, and retreat with a life that's entirely separate from what exists on her albums. Moreover, she's capable of bending an entire set into one gradual crescendo (during her performance tonight, she seemed to gain control, volume, and overall momentum at an equal rate).
She also possesses sincerity and raw emotionality. Her challenge is to own these emotions when performing, rather than simply hoping she can sit you down and describe them to you.
Critic's Notebook: "Oh baby salt baby tears." No way this is the right lyric...