Album review: Julia Holter – Loud City Song

by Thomas Blake

Julia Holter’s second full-length release Ekstasis was the best album of 2012. It was intelligent, sophisticated, playful, bursting with oneiric repetitions, creepy-beautiful phrases, unexpected jolts and challenging references. It’s follow-up, Loud City Song, is Holter’s third album in as many years. This kind of productiveness can mean one of two things: either she is shooting her bolt early, and the inevitable wane starts here, or she has such a command of her material and her muse, such a mature self-knowledge, that she is actually capable of the kind of threesome that Dylan coughed up in the 60s from Bringing It All Back Home onwards.

Strangely, this is music that sounds like it has taken years to make, music that has had to mature, to wait until the correct technology and the perfect producer came along. World, the first track, is as simple and universal as a haiku. Holter sings of hats, tennis and overheard snatches of song. Before the film score-style stings and minimal piano kick in it shares common ground with Jane’s It’s A Fine Day. It sets the tone, and the tone is just a little bit Parisian. And so it should be – the album is inspired by the 1958 film Gigi. World is a stunning song, perfectly balancing mystery and simplicity with knowing poise and a strange, emotionally charged detachment.

There are moments of mid-period Joni Mitchell-style jazzy larking about. In the Green Wild is one of these, and it’s a hoot. The cello that controls the early part of the song suddenly lets itself be jostled and nudged by perky, mischievous synths. On Hello Stranger, seagulls’ cries and a bed of synths introduce an intriguingly soulful take on a Barbara Lewis classic, stripped away and slowed down. But this isn’t some trip-hop tripe, some lost Morcheeba B-side. The vocal performance, the effortless timing, the strings that creep in like a tide and engulf you before you know it see to that.

I have no idea what Maxim’s II is all about, but that doesn’t matter. Its rabbit in the headlights horns, its controlling, underlying strings and its deadpan vocal delivery make for some industrial, existential, avant-garde crooner-funk. So European, yet always a little bit American – almost like Scott Walker in this respect. And then Holter prunes everything back for a short back and sides piano vignette, He’s Running Through My Eyes, a deceptive little ditty that harks back to the themes of vision, remembrance, longing and solitude that pervaded Ekstasis.

By the time final track City Appearing (a convex mirror image of opener World – hats and all) reaches its conclusion, you will have realised that Loud City Song’s overriding preoccupations of the urban world and the individual mind are mutually inclusive and necessarily entire. It both refines and generalises the motifs of the previous record. Is it better? Musically, the classical and minimal themes are marginally less apparent here, and the free jazzing horniness that was introduced at the end of Ekstasis is cranked up a notch or two. But the end result is surprisingly similar in feel, albeit bigger, and smaller. It is certainly proof that Holter is capable of extended, thematically linked but completely self-contained periods of brilliance. And it may just turn out to be the best album of 2013.

Loud City Song is released on 20th August