Ten essential songs by Jolie Holland seemed like a good idea for a piece for AUK but seriously when the time came to choose only 10 songs from her 20 year career the practical impossibility of the task presented itself – what the f*** was I thinking.
Holland covers almost all the bases of the types of music usually lumped together under the americana umbrella. She’s a writer, a collaborator, accomplished on guitar, fiddle and keyboards, whistles like a thrush and has a voice that wraps the listener warmly into the song slipping into the ear and reaching brain, heart, feet and soul.
Holland co-founded the Be Good Tanyas with her friend and collaborator Samantha Parton and her presence is all over their first (and best) album ‘Blue Horse’ before she embarked on a series of solo records on Anti- from 2002’s ‘Catalpa’ to 2014’s ‘Wine Dark Sea’ before reconnecting with Parton for 2017’s duo record ‘Wildflower Blues’.
Currently based in Los Angeles, she is working on a new record, a video iteration of ‘Escondida’, preparing a vinyl reissue of ‘Catalpa’ and starting touring as well as performing occasionally with a Velvet Underground tribute band. She is active on Patreon with weekly engagement; most recently a series of Tom Waits covers.
So with the proviso that the whole of what follows could be replaced 3 or 4 times without any dilution in quality, here goes.
Number 10: Jolie Holland & The Grand Chandeliers ‘Devil’s Sake’.‘Devil’s Sake’ is one of Holland’s dark folk classic tunes steeped in religious imagery; in the song she’s wondering whether a lover is “the devil or one I should love”. The voice switches between uncertainty and a deeper confidence “I’m trying to be innocent as a dove but I’m smarter than a nestful of snakes” which turns the question into more one of temptation or redemption. Marc Ribot’s national steel adds a slightly gothic bluesy undertow.
Number 9: Jolie Holland ‘Corrido Por Buddy’ (2008)
Empathy is another quality that runs through Holland’s work. ‘Corrido Por Buddy’ is the second track on ‘The Living and the Dead’, her fourth record. It recounts the tale of “a friend of [her] friends” who lapsed into despair, homelessness and addiction.
“He was a beautiful young man on the streets of Austin
He was a ghost faced junkie on the streets of New Orleans
I could barely recognize him when I saw him
He had to look me in the face and say my name before I knew it was him”
She tells of regret at her inability to rescue him and mulls the happenstance that can make the difference between decline and recovery.
“And I wonder what it takes just to save one little life
Icarus almost made it back to the shore
When I was really down, there were three little words
From a couple of good people that kept me holding on”.
Musically it’s underpinned by a tight drum track and lightly embellished with guitar while a harmony vocal, probably Parton’s, tracks Holland’s emotional lead.
Number 8: Jolie Holland ‘First Sign of Spring‘ (2014)
Holland’s sixth album, ‘Wine Dark Sea’, is a swirl of alternative rock sounds in collaboration with a group of musicians in New York. After the intensity of opener ‘On And On’, there is a moment of calm with ‘First Sign of Spring’. The song begins with Holland’s gentle rolling piano followed by brushed drums and Holland’s rich voice
“Sidewalk is frozen and I’m tired of my coat
And the snow drifts in again
I keep forgetting to bring my hat
And I’m shivering in the wind
Only two people on this big city block
Who can’t stop slow dancing to a silent song”
A “shimmering” guitar and violin join as she choruses:
“And it looks like you and me are the first sign of spring
You and me are the first sign, you and me”.
The tune builds through the second verse and chorus before resting on a low-tone clarinet line to close. The music is evocative of the chill of the winter and then the warmth of the two lovers.
Number 7: Jolie Holland ‘Crush In The Ghetto‘ (2006)
After the folk-orientated first two albums, Holland’s third, ‘Springtime Can Kill You’, took a jazzier and rockier turn. ‘Crush in the Ghetto’ is a song so effective in capturing the essence of its story it’s like an arthouse short. With a spring in her step, “I’m floating with the birds,
I am talking with the weeds”, she describes a walk (and bus ride) of shame through the early San Francisco morning. The music mirrors the movement of the singer’s journey. The level of detail and nuance of observation take the listener there with her. The sudden end was written to have a white on black “Fin” over it.
Number 6: Jolie Holland & Samantha Parton ‘Minstrel Boy’ (2017)
Reuniting for a project following Parton’s recovery from two bad car accidents, they were seeking to make a record evocative of early 1970s Bob Dylan. ‘Minstrel Boy’ takes the single verse ‘Self Portrait’ Dylan song and augments it with two additional verses from Holland.
The song opens with an acapella chorus from Holland, Parton and Stevie Weinstein-Foner before Holland takes the verse. The song builds with Weinstein-Foner’s guitar featuring and gradually moves into a more soul-gospel vein with Jared Samuel’s barroom piano augmenting the sound. The final chorus almost preaches.
Number 5: The Be Good Tanyas ‘Littlest Birds‘ (2002)
The lead-off track on the Tanyas’ debut, ‘Blue Horse’, is a co-write with Parton, plus a credit to Syd Barrett for a verse borrowed from ‘Jug Band Blues’. The tune is one of those that swerves this way and that, like a bird in flight:
“Well, I feel like an old hobo, I’m sad, lonesome and blue
I was fair as a summer’s day, now the summer days are through”
The song expresses a lot of motion and definitely gets the toes tapping if not the listener up and dancing.
Holland re-recorded the song as ‘Little Birds’ on her ‘Pint of Blood’ album minus the Barrett verse and with a Hispanic-Caribbean feel. Beautiful song, wonderfully performed.
Number 4: Jolie Holland ‘Palmyra’ (2008)
‘Palmyra’ is a mysterious song with a touch of New Orleans gothic which Holland introduces with:
“Only a few old petals left
On the rose that touched your hand
My little heart is a graveyard
It’s a no man’s land”
The song itself builds in layers with instruments being added. Marc Ribot’s guitar weaves in and out of the melody. And it rises and falls like a dance: “I’ll dance at your funeral if you dance at mine”.
Before concluding darkly and philosophically:
“Already said my farewell
Sweet Palmyra and that old Ninth Ward
Have to hit that long road that passes straight through hell
Straight through hell, straight through hell
I wish you well sweet Palmyra”
Number 3: Jolie Holland ‘Sascha‘ (2004)
‘Sascha’ is a song that’s been shouted as a request at pretty much every Jolie Holland show I’ve attended but infrequently performed. It’s a bittersweet love song for what seems to have been an intense (“My gypsy heart was inflamed”) but transitory (“Well I fell in love with a boy Who has a real-life romance with a train”) relationship. The song sweeps in with a jazzy guitar and soft double bass contributing to the warmth and intimacy of the song. The latter part of the tune adds Asa Andersen’s gentle trumpet.
Number 2: Jolie Holland ‘Alley Flowers’ (2002)
Buck Meek of Big Thief was quoted recently: “It’s impossible for me to define my favourite album of the last 25 years – that is a fluid thing, changing all the time. Though I can say that Jolie Holland’s ‘Catalpa’ had the biggest impact on me of any album in the last 25 years.”
‘Alley Flowers’ , the opening track, is a torrent of intense playing with Holland’s violin leading out. Inspiring on the record, it’s awesome performed live when it sounds like the musical evocation of a maritime storm. By the time it’s done the listener can feel exhausted by the sheer force.
Number 1 – Jolie Holland ‘Mexican Blue’ (2006)
The final track on ‘Springtime Can Kill You’, a big live favourite and one of this writer’s all time top 20, ‘Mexican Blue’ is six and a half minutes of sublime playing and a truly great vocal performance. The song is dedicated to Parton. It begins and ends softly with the same verse celebrating natural beauty and resilience akin to the eponymous tree. But over the intervening minutes it becomes increasingly stronger and eventually tempestuous building both instrumentally and vocally. Lyrically it’s an outstanding piece of writing:
“There’s a mockingbird behind my house
Who is a magician of the highest degree
And I swear I heard him rip the world apart
And sew it back again with his fiery melody, melody”
“When the moon is as clear as an opal
And the amethyst river sings a song
I’ll remember all your dreams and the mysteries
You have borne in your crystalline soul”
It’s a celebration and a love letter, personal and universal and suffused throughout with a blend of melody, dynamics and musicianship that is truly exceptional. And the voice: warm, natural, enveloping; mixing birdsong with honey. ‘Mexican Blue’ is a song which when it’s over requires a quiet moment of reflection before either rapturous applause or playing it again.