If you follow Jolie Holland on social media or read interviews she’s given to music publications over the years, three things stand out more than anything else. One, she engages her audience. On her facebook page there are real conversations going on with fans, and it’s apparent it’s not about getting more followers. Secondly, she speaks her mind, like when she corrects an interviewer who has his facts wrong, or when she talks about the lack of compensation for musicians. But Holland’s most noticeable and intriguing quality is her curious mind, just as other great artists — like Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and David Bowie before her. Her inquisitive nature is first evident in her musical tastes, ranging from old-timers like Blind Willie McTell and The Rolling Stones to Townes Van Zandt. And it’s her artistic tastes that greatly inform her new record, “Wine Dark Sea”, her first LP in three years, set to be released May 20 via Anti- Records. But Holland’s interests don’t seem to stop at music.
It wouldn’t be surprising to read an interview where she drops in a reference to Dante or some eclectic painter. It’s moved to the point, in a cynical musical culture, that an artist referencing serious writers, like say William S. Burroughs or Alice B. Toklas, often gets written off as self-serious. Since when did it become unfashionable in music or culture to be smart or eclectic? Coincidentally, maybe it’s the same time we started to devalue musicianship. We forget that there really are musicians out there that treat the craft with a reverence, and that understand that songwriting can be like a unique palimpsest — an age-old process of honoring, re-writing, creating, and seeking inspiration from those that came before. The world of art is interlinked. With Holland it’s not an anxiety of influence but rather a love for great, old music. She’ll use a phrase like “crystalline structure” to express what she likes about a piece of music. (Think of the last time you heard a musician being interviewed who described music like that.) She seems disinterested in soundbite chatter. And it’s that no-bullshit feel that fuels the more devastatingly caustic songs and bursts of energy on “Wine Dark Sea”.
“Dark Days” is guttural, scuzzy and begrimed by guitar. It contains a clatter of percussion, rough noise and fragmentation, with Holland singing out, “I want to smash it all up / And never start again” — bringing the whole house down on her head by the end of the song. It’s a glorious destruction. It’s the sheer spectrum of her curiosity that’s so impressive. You can hear her appreciation for the knotty tangle of the world, words and musical ways of expression, and it clearly flavors all of her work. “Wine Dark Sea” is a record as gorgeously complex as the singer that framed its poetic contours in the colors of rubied wine, obsidian voodoo myths, white-lightning flashes and celestial-blue dreaming. What makes this record one of her best (if not the best she’s ever made), is the paradoxical sense that it’s held together by competing traits: disintegrating skronk and bluesy air-raid siren guitars are the clank and roar of infernal clamor that fuses with stories of warm romance and elegant tales of love lost, love gone wrong, or love desired.
The album opener, “On and On”, builds like slow-rolling thunder, blending steady percussion with flashes of guitar resonance and thick reverberating textures reminiscent of something like The Velvet Underground’s “Waiting For My Man”. When Holland coos out the line, “I can feel this love coming on”, it hits at a gut and heart level. There’s a real ingenuity to the track, that balances the fragility of the lyrics with a teetering musical edge created by guitarists Adam Brisbin and Indigo Street. There are touchstones all over this record and Holland isn’t shy about her appreciation for other musicians. The record contains a clever cover version of Joe Tex’s “The Love You Save” and even, perhaps subconsciously, a head-nod to a partially-cribbed Bob Marley lyric “… the cold ground was my bed last night” in the Louisiana love-ballad “Saint Dymphna”, a track that would make Patsy Cline smile. That song contains a pretty verse that I don’t quite understand, but like a lot of good poetry, imparts feeling without giving up the ghost: “I couldn’t bear to be a sinner in your sweet name.” Two of my favorite songs on the record, “Palm Wine Drunkard” and “Out On the Wine Dark Sea”, conjure the chaotic side of a Tom Waits’ record, unifying motley instrumentation with melodies and pretty songwriting. In the latter, a voodoo-influenced gem, Holland rhymes with supreme elegance: “is so” pairs with “Erzulie Danto”, “Loup Garroux” with “come for you”, and “that song” with “Pour Ma Baron”. It’s sublime poetics, that when sung in Holland’s usual slurred sexy syllabic slide, feels soothing and pleasant as a cat’s purr, nestling against the corrosive discord of jolting guitar lines and rattling instrumental doom. Part of this record’s charm is how organic and carefree the music feels, like improvisation, yet it still retains a serious cohesion, like the band had been playing together like this for years.
Holland and her band also find time for more traditional fare and fun, like “Waiting For the Sun”, featuring the cool gutbucket grooves of Doug Wieselman’s saxophone, and the sweetly-smoked R&B-influenced piece “All the Love”, with its gorgeous waltzing rhythm, graceful piano, and some of Holland’s sexiest singing. It’s a daring record in many ways. Emotions are laid bare, and the band takes risks that pay off. It’s a record that proves Holland is an American treasure. The mix of styles, imagery and influences on “Wine Dark Sea” are wholly creative without damning the familiar foundation Holland created with her five previous studio albums. In “Wine Dark Sea” there are touches of West African rhythms and Robert Johnson at the crossroads. The lyrics give life to Louisiana, voodoo, folktales and myths (including a salute to Homeric expression in the title of record). It’s a whiff of the devil’s sulfur, with a keen sense for lovelorn blues. It shows a multiplicity of range that functions as a dare to the listener, to challenge them to venture into Holland’s wine-tinted world of apocalypse, passion, love and salvation through music.