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HOLTER COVERS LEWIS’S “HELLO STRANGER,” REIMAGINES MINNELLI’S “GIGI” ON “LOUD CITY SONG.”
If art counted as news, that would be a major headline in all the newspapers of the world. To my mind, Julia Holter’s albums arrive as news, first and foremost, her sources as checked facts, before they’ve even reached the listener and begun to signify privately. That’s quite a feat: Loud City Song is only her third album, but also a big promise of something happening, somewhere. And then, once you’ve heard it, here’s a talent so complete that she represents a hope for the return of the MGM musical, immediately dashed by her rarity. She’s not a movie director, but her project here requires a similar kind of passion and a command of a broad range of material. The vacancy of a less remarkable era has a certain advantage; the death of the musical and the grand entertainment makes room for an album like Loud City Song.
And it’s a much cleaner substitution, one form for another, than you might expect. The impeccable recreation of public spaces in Holter’s music had a sometimes insulating effect on last year’s Ekstasis (the bus stop of “Our Sorrows” was a supreme studio achievement) but gives Loud City Song the air of a public event. On “Maxim’s I,” Gigi’s Paris nightclub emerges in a soft bed of keyboard stabs and cymbals (only the beginning of the album’s startling progression of production feats), such a beguiling spell of a scene that you’ll suffer no thought of its decadence. The makers of Gigi had to thank the institutions of Paris for their permission to photograph interiors, and this album almost requires a similar credit. The form is different—one, a movie to see at a theater, the other, an album to be played at home—but as theatrical experiences, not so different. There’s no turning off from either. As background music, Loud City Song hardly signifies, and as music for a dreaming mind, it confuses. The attention of an alert mind is the price of admission, and you can’t go home again, even if you’re already there, until the show is over. As music with no home, with no bedroom, no stable point of refuge, it embarrasses a lot of recent R&B, pop music, indie rock, etc., even the really good stuff, by its thorough, unlaughing engagement with everything external: the past, the city, the spectators. Holter may shudder under the gaze of watchful birds, on “Maxim’s,” but refuses to retreat.
But temporarily discard all these notions of the nightclub and theater for one weightless, private moment: The cover of Barbara Lewis’s 1963 “Hello Stranger,” the album’s centerpiece and breathless high point, is a solitary singer’s bid that even the empty space of “World,” a wide opening for Holter’s vocal, doesn’t quite suggest. Dilation and abstraction and suspension of the original’s elements, with no loss of the melody, is the key to the beauty of this “Stranger,” so Holter, the stand-in for Lewis in this bold idea, delivers a much better vocal performance than is really necessary, and then, around the five minute mark, better still, so captivating that even the reverb’s emotional amplification doesn’t feel like a cheat. It’s as if Lewis herself has been piped in from some abandoned vocal track, or elsewhere. For this reason, and for the spare, spectacular production, Holter must be the artist for the cover of Ben E. King’s “I Count The Tears” I’ve held gleaming in my mind for years.
Other moments in the music appear to spring from post-punk era antecedents. On “Horns Surrounding Me” (the title names a classic situation of song narrators), her vocal challenge to her tense musical setting casts her as Siouxsie Sioux, or the Kate Bush of “Cloudbusting.” On “Into the Green Wild,” the melody of an upright bass morphs into the kind of bass line Tina Weymouth might’ve written, and the entire arrangement keeps up with improbable flexibility. Yet it feels a little perverse or obtuse to compare Holter to anyone she hasn’t named as a source. You could be accused of a too “creative” reading of a perfectly controlled text.
Gigi, 1958 Best Picture Oscar winner and the album’s professed inspiration, offers more than enough opportunities for interpretation. What could interest Holter in the story of a girl who hates love and a man who hates routine (hence, both longing for the impermanent and undefined), bound to come together by mutually steadying each other for the society they can’t take alone? When she sings about love, she produces a similar sentiment. On “This Is A True Heart,” she is Gigi: “Let’s not insist on “love.” We’re just alive.” In a broader sense, Gigi is a musical with no dancing, one in which most of the singing happens during moments of sitting, all of this more than made up for by the movie’s bold choreographic gestures: climactically, Gaston’s reversal by the fountain at night, his pointing cane (a moment of clarity, as his loud city song plays). Holter makes music heavy with movement, with many climactic moments but few expected rhythms or openings for dancing.
Loud City Song contains as many jaw-dropping moments as Ekstasis (the arrival of the horns; the sudden occasions of a groove), but even these, and the album’s ambient passages, Holter contains this time around in songs with clearly defined boundaries. When I reviewed Ekstasis I worried that I was describing an album of special effects. That could’ve been true again, but the really astonishing sound moments of Loud City Song pretty clearly align with climactic song moments. That’s especially remarkable since Holter’s lyrics, on and off the page, constitute an actual poetry whose meter and moments of repetition and allusion aren’t made any easier upon being set to music. Holter employs no pop music tricks to square her pages. All the of the worlds of “World” don’t begin to resemble a chorus; the Thriller reference at the end of “Maxim’s” stays in the realm of language; etc. She’s Frank O’Hara, her old verified source, with somewhat muted enthusiasm (to avoid distraction from the music), but with the underlying romance undiminished. As a city poet, she won’t even solve for us the mystery of the modifier “loud” in her album’s title, but a well-placed comma might clarify: the soft interplay of a loud city, and a song.
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