REVIEW: Jolie Holland – “Wine Dark Sea”

Originally published in Popdose on Oct. 30, 2014

Second take? Such a treasure! On Wine Dark Sea, Jolie Holland’s sixth LP, the eclectic singer-songwriter doesn’t just sit at the intersection of blues, soul and folk – she proves she can own it.

After the joys of records like Escondida, a true studio-debut gem, or her collaborations with M. Ward and guitarist/sound-assassin Marc Ribot, Holland, she of Vancouver’s The Be Good Tanyas, took a bit of a skewed turn with Wine Dark Sea, out now on ANTI, letting go of some of the art-fixated, mid-century folk – think Americana-by-way-of-Andrew-Bird – in favor of what we’ll call a Blue Period: raw and edgier, more soulful crooning, piano stomping, Joe Tex cover, snarling and punchy guitars, the whole nine.

And that voice! Holland always has displayed a knack for making her beautiful, highly original voice sound smoky and seductive (case in point: “Old-Fashioned Morphine”). But the word on Wine Dark Sea that comes to mind is affectation. It’s a more pointed delivery – and incredibly engaging. She doesn’t “push” her voice because that somehow implies she’s straining to some degree to reach the notes. No, Holland doesn’t strain at all, keeps the studio interventions on vocals to a bare minimum, and proves herself ever the chanteuse on the new record, belting out songs like the lonesome “First Signs of Spring,” the doo-wop closer “Waiting For The Sun,” the moody and downright incredible “Dark Days,” and her slightly jacked-up take on the Tex-minted “The Love You Save.” (When she sings of drunkards late in the record, the word her voice brings to mind, of course, is intoxicating. And rightfully so: it’s a potent proof.)

Now, this is a bit of a second take because Wine Dark Sea hits streets, shelves and airwaves in all its glory a few months ago. And reviewers were impressed. But some, for example, took exception to the dingy, consciously abrasive guitar (and multi-guitar) work that punctuated oft-straight-forward blues and soul staple-formats. At times, Holland’s rough and noisy guitar interjections seem contrary to her silky smooth vocal delivery but, in a world full of tones and textures, it now sounds like it makes sense and fits the record quite nicely. Think the ghost-grunge of Neil Young’s Dead Man score crossed with the mutant-dance leanings of Tom Waits’ Real Gone and Bad As Me and douse the fire with more Ribot-isms – you’ll get the idea. It might have been a startling statement of purpose, maybe even moreso at first blush, but it was a reminder that, on songs like, say, the Hank Williams-speckled honky-tonk number “Route 30,” Holland wasn’t interested in molds. She was yearning to break them.

Now, roots music. It’s a loaded term, am I right? Holland, for all of her interests in jazz and 19th century popular music forms, sometimes gets lumped in with more direct folk-descendants because of her employment of the acoustic guitar as a weapon of choice. And, yes, first glances of the melancholy “I Thought It Was The Moon” and even the foot-tapping opener “On And On,” its skeleton more Delta blues than jazz, show there’s some justice to the roots label.

But songs like the one-more-drink-‘til-closing-time waltz “Saint Dymphna” or the even-more-boozy, hook-laden “Palm Wine Drunkard” – one of this glowing record’s truly most glowing moments – prove she’s looking, if anything, to stretch the boundaries and limits of the genre. It’s not a cage; it’s a map. Get it? And, yeah, this is not timid music for timid people. The LP’s modus operandi is even writ large on the cover: a body-less, splashy dive into an ocean of stars.

If you’re an adventurer, Holland’s got something for you. If you’re looking for holographic replicas of her last few records, sorry, kids. You’ve got to grow with this artist to respect her. I agree with No Depression: if you crack open Wine Dark Sea, prepare for a feast of gold.

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