Jolie Holland – [Album]

Tuesday, 01 November 2011

Some artists can elicit a very strong reaction from listeners, even after just a few bars. When Neil Young appears on the radio, for example, one camp of listeners embraces his non-traditional style and finds comfort in his elaborate vocal intensity while others race to turn the station as quickly as they can and by any means necessary. I imagine Jolie Holland has a very similar polarizing effect. With her fifth studio album, Pint of Blood, Holland stays true to her style of dusky, heartfelt bluesy rock.

Anyone who has listened to Holland’s previous efforts will instantly recognize her unique vocal qualities. It’s certainly not for everyone but, when it works, it’s pretty special; it has a strong and rarely wavering sense of time and place. With songs set in a dusty bar somewhere in her home state of Texas, the ten tracks on Pint of Blood certainly work for their tips. Holland’s bending vocals are distinctive and strangely graceful; she has an impressive ability to save an off-key vocal, bending it to sweetly meet the melody at just the last moment. Paired with her sometimes all-too-intimate and revealing lyrics, the finished product is a nod to Lucinda Williams with some Tom Waits swagger and a healthy bit of Lou Reed disenchantment factored in, while remaining squarely Jolie.
With slurred vocals always set forward in the mix, Holland sings of love and loss with strong lyrical content. Filled with witty turns of phrase, she meets disappointment with a shot of whiskey, a shrug and a sneer. The blues-tinged “Tender Mirror” reveals biting lyrics worth remembering such as “I’m not in love with a stranger anymore. I slipped out of the spell you can go to hell if that’s what you’re headed for.” In the next verse there’s the dagger “Unintelligible cries of an animal in the night mean more to my ear than the noise I hear you trying to get it right.” There’s quite a bit of muscle in the imagery she is able to create and I’m glad I’m not on the receiving end of lines like those.

Many songs seem to originate from a deep personal space and are filled with profound emotion, enticing the listener to lean forward and hear more parts of the juicy story. It is an interesting juxtaposition with the vocals sitting atop and seemingly disconnected from the accompanying guitar. “Wreckage” exemplifies this with phrases including “It brings a smile to my lips when I think of your fist” and “If disappointment was like a drug/I overdosed again” set atop, but not necessarily integrated with, the strong country-rock musicianship of Shazad Is, Grey Gersten and Mark Ribot. Other tracks follow-suit with the only misstep being “Littlest Birds” which doesn’t quite work with a backing sound reminiscent of Paul Simon set beneath her bluesy, meandering repetition of vocals. While the rest of the album maintains a consistent trajectory, this track comes across as haphazard and unfinished.

The album ends with a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s song “Rex’s Blues.” This time with a slightly slower cadence and a dreamy, rather than bar-room piano, Van Zandt would have been proud. While I may be in the minority by quickly changing stations on the likes of Neil Young, I’m not so fast to dismiss Jolie Holland. Pint of Blood is filled with enough graceful and powerful moments that it’s hard to ignore the poetry she is able to create.



Pint of Blood
is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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