Jolie Holland’s New Album Wine Dark Sea: A Cross-Genre Success
My one and only encounter with Jolie Holland was the kick-off date for her Fall 2006 tour in support of Springtime Can Kill You. It was Wednesday, Oct. 11, and she was playing Club Cafe in Pittsburgh. I went with a friend who knew nothing of her music. He and I were early and sat upfront at a table, stage right. A young woman sat next to us. We chatted briefly and exchanged pleasantries, and then the opener (David Dondero) went on stage. I was unfamiliar with the artist, but the woman next to us knew many of his songs by heart and told us about Dondero in between his songs. Following his set, she got up and left. I assumed she was just attending to see him as she couldn’t stop singing his praise. I told my friend, “What a shame, she’s not sticking around for Jolie Holland.” Yet, when it was time for Jolie’s set to begin, the same woman my friend and I had just chatted up, got up on stage and began to play- and yes, needless to say, I felt like an ass.
Having artistic freedom and support from her record label ANTI-, Jolie has been able to follow the musical paths that she’s been interested in pursuing. Much like Jolie’s music is hard to pin down to just a single genre, her persona has also changed over the years. This included an image change in 2006 for Springtime Can Kill You. I didn’t realize that my friend and I had just conversed and sat with Jolie for over an hour because she looked nothing like the pictures of her included with Catalpa (2003) and Escondida (2004).
This brings me to my review of Jolie’s new album Wine Dark Sea. Don’t let the talk fool you. The album is not all experimental and dark. As much as ANTI- and the Holland camp is trying to impress this experimental sound upon Wine Dark Sea (comparing it to Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat), it is mostly an album of love songs that are across many genres. Most of the songs are accessible and even somewhat optimistic (at least for a Jolie Holland record). While some songs are a departure, many have a familiarity and would fit well on some of her earlier releases; Wine Dark Sea is not so much a reinvention of Jolie, but rather, another style to add to her multifaceted nature.
From the very first track, “On and On,” we are introduced to the “sonic assault” that is touted in the album’s press release. Holland’s vocals surprisingly stand up against this onslaught of darkly chaotic sounds. In a song that feels like Hank Williams got together with Velvet Underground. she likens the beginning of love to violent storms and pleads (or cautions), “Please be gentle with my heart, because I’m in love with you.”
Next up is “First Sign of Spring,” which is a bluesy and soulful ballad that speaks of the changing of seasons and fledgling love. Having already visited spring once with “Springtime Can Kill You,” Holland discovers new material by embracing the details of this seasonal cusp. Speaking of details, two people “who can’t stop slow dancing to a silent song” testify to the excitement of new love (somewhat juxtaposing “On and On”).
Almost a companion piece to “On And On,” “Dark Days” might be what happens when people are not gentle with her heart. The song possesses a more sinister sound narrative, too (almost like early Doors songs). The sonic assault on this track is meant to complement the lyrics, infusing them with an anger that is palpable. As an artist, I can imagine that the volume and power of the “psychotic breakdown noises” (description courtesy of the album liner notes) could really empower her on stage (it is worth noting that a lot of these songs were recorded live, without multiple takes or separate recordings); but, as music playing from a playlist, I’m not sure that it manages the same success for the listener.
“Route 30” feels as if it could’ve appeared on Escondida (complete with that amazing whistling). Coming across as a traveling song, this track will definitely appear on many road trip playlists. A tale of cross-country travel, “Route 30” thankfully resists the sonic assault and allows for a smile and a bounce in your step. An added treat in the liner notes compares the mandolin playing to that of the visual artist Cy Twombly (seriously, the descriptions in the liner notes elevated my appreciation of this album).
While some other songs suggest the intensity of love, “I Thought It Was The Moon” comes across like sacred vows – “Nothing in this world I wouldn’t steal for you.” Courtesy of sparse experimental instrumentation, the sound of the song takes the listener to a darker place (sonically reminiscent of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin”). Unlike previous tracks that were less successful in integrating more disjointed sounds, this time it truly works as they blend with the vocals and lyrics. I found myself listening with full focus, desperately wanting to find out where the song would take me.
Next up is just pure bluesy fun with the Joe Tex-penned tune, “The Love You Save.” This song works well not just because of her voice (of which she is in full command on this track), but as a troubadour who has done constant touring for the better part of almost two decades, you believe that she’s probably seen and experienced a lot of these heartbreaks and struggles. Amazing guest vocals by Chanticleer Tru elevate this song even further (for more on Chanticleer Tru, check out his band Magic Mouth from Portland).
“All The Love” returns us to the soulful sounds brought in on “First Sign of Spring.” This is either the most optimistic or the saddest of break-up songs. Following the end of a relationship, the spurned promises that she will keep all of the love that she had for her ex, should he ever decide to come back.
“Saint Dymphna” is a love song to New Orleans and the blues. Somewhat more of a ballad, it attests to love having the power to drive us insane. Hopefully St. Dymphna can cure us of the craziness caused by falling in love.
A mixture of Creole and a bluesy Waitsian turn, “Palm Wine Drunkard” is a foot-stompin’ crowd pleaser. Harkening back to Escondida’s “Old Fashioned Morphine,” “Palm Wine Drunkard” speaks of the intoxicating nature of love and how it can turn us into masochists.
The album closes out with two tracks that return to more experimental musical accompaniments. “Out On the Wine Dark Sea” segues nicely out of “Palm Wine Drunkard” invoking voodoo and oozing with sexuality, and is another track that succeeds with the injection of sonic chaos.
We close out with “Waiting For The Sun” – a wonderful retro-soul ballad that becomes overrun by chaotic noise toward the end. I just don’t understand the necessity for the “sonic assault” on this song; however, it is still an amazing one and easy choice for the lead single.
Following her show back in 2006, we went with Holland and some of her bandmates to a coffeehouse for bagels and tea. We talked a lot about the music industry, of artists she found inspiring (Ryan Adams) and others to whom she perplexingly found herself being compared. What stood out from this evening, nearly eight years ago, is that Jolie Holland is a true artist who meticulously crafted her songs.
With that said, Wine Dark Sea may very well be her best album to date. While I’m still not a huge fan of the “sonic assault” (I often have the same reaction to some of Wilco’s material), I applaud Holland for a majority of this new release (as it’s just as much soul, blues, and jazz as it is rock n’ roll). As the lone producer of Wine Dark Sea, it’s exciting to see her let loose and allow an organic approach to the recording session. It’ll be interesting to see how the album is received when it comes out in stores on May 20th.
Adam Kukic is the host of The Coffeehouse on 91.3-FM, Pittsburgh … listen live at www.wyep.org
The Coffeehouse is the perfect complement to your coffee maker percolating on Sunday morning’s from 8am- 11am (EST).