In an interview (conducted by himself) promoting 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, eccentric genius David Byrne argued that “the better the singer’s voice, the harder it is to believe what they’re saying.” While Byrne wasn’t claiming that this was a hard and fast rule, the statement held a lot of weight in a world where so many strong voices got gobbled up by the pop music machine only to be rendered indistinguishable from each other. There’s still some of that going on, to be sure, but there’s also the enhanced potential to discover the outliers, those that go beyond the presumed either/or binary in music of technical proficiency and experimental, artistic depth. One such example is Julia Holter, whose Loud City Song displays her classical training and immaculately strong voice, as well as her idiosyncratic, emotionally salient worldview.
It’s a pretty nice coincidence that later in that same interview, Byrne explains that his songwriting is an effort “to show people the movies in my head.” Parts of Holter’s new album, Loud City Song, act as a sort of re-envisioning of Colette’s 1944 novella Gigi, and likely the 1958 film version of the same. The press release also notes influence from noted New York School poet Frank O’Hara, and the album featuring highly narrative-driven lyrics, some even including filmic sound effects. From these minor details alone, it’s clear that Holter is more than just a pretty voice; she’s also someone interested in revealing to the world the movies playing in her head, movies full of social intrigue, introspection, and slow pans over beautiful cityscapes.
Ekstasis standout “Marienbad” held ties to New Wave classic Last Year At Marienbad. But tracks like “Maxim’s I” delves into the task far more literally, voices of multiple characters channeled through Holter’s own, as the easy drum rolls, upright bass, and choral wash of big budget Hollywood embolden her play. A scene in Gigi finds the determinately individualist title character stepping into Maxim’s, an elite, high-end restaurant, only to find herself the center of gossip and intention. After a dream sequence-like fade in on shimmering cymbals, Holter steps into that same role: “Tonight the birds are watching me/ do they have more important things to do?” Later, she whispers out the voyeuristic lines of the onlookers, analyzing herself in turn.
After fading back out on that same cymbal sibilance, “Horns Surrounding Me” opens with the sound of eager calls, hurried breath, and even more hurried footfalls, Holter whispering about something “chasing after me.” The trumpet stabs and walking low-end sound ripped from a Hitchcock thriller, but then big, lush vocals and snapping drums pull the song through into an orchestral pop tune, the horns still penning her in. Later, she sings on “World” about wearing a hat, a seemingly innocuous choice until she starts to wonder about how the brim hides her eyes from other people. These songs consistently analyze the place of individual choice in the face of others having that same ability to choose, from the tale of differing opinions and love slipping away on “He’s Running Through My Eyes” to mere costume choice in “World”.
But the album doesn’t end with mismatched intentions, outsider status, and frustrated communication with the world. The light bounce of “This Is A True Heart” announces the difference, the trait that keeps Holter from falling into the bile of the gossipy society, from fading into jaded emptiness, and from that trap of the good voice that Byrne described. “These are true words/ speak heart,” she coos, over a breezy bed of fluttering flute, trombone bursts, and pizzicato strings, all wrapped together by an impossibly slinky tenor sax. That knowledge of self and willingness to speak it in the face of judgment, scrutiny, and dismissal is a rare power, Holter’s inner voice just as strong as her physical one.
Perhaps not coincidentally, these songs come about as Holter moves from bedroom-recorded indie darling to Domino Records, a professional studio, and a room full of session musicians, daubing her compositions in glitzy, orchestral trappings. She’s not alone in her own world, but rather acting as the tour guide to its landmarks. Loud City Song is a sightseeing trip with a person fully able to portray the objective beauty of the sights, as well as her own take on them.
Essential Tracks: “Horns Surrounding Me”, “This Is A True Heart”