Julia Holter’s early work, much of it recorded while studying at the California Institute Of The Arts, is almost a trip through the thought processes leading up to this year’s ‘Ekstasis’ album. Showing her workings, you could say.
The home recordings of her 2007 debut, ‘Eating The Stars’, are in many ways the most similar to where she’s ended up, in terms of structure. A twisted pop album, her strange, pitched up cover of Crowded House’s ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ on that record displayed some of her first attempts to mix the accessible and the outright weird.
2009′s ‘Cookbook’, meanwhile, saw her adapting a 1920s cookbook into a musical composition, its recipes recited over a bed of field recordings and samples, based on the instructions of John Cage’s ‘Circus On’. Then there’s the album that first brought her to wider attention, 2011′s ‘Tragedy’, a concept album loosely based on ancient Greek writer Euripides’ two and half thousand year old play ‘Hippolytus’.
Elements of each of these can be seen in ‘Ekstasis’, resulting in an album more accessible than all of them, but with all of their charm and depth remaining intact. In terms of songwriting, ‘Tragedy’ is probably its closest link, both because the two albums were written in tandem and because the former’s standout track, ‘Goddess Eyes’, features twice on the new record, once in a reworked form. But whereas ‘Tragedy’ is a record tightly held together by its narrative, ‘Ekstasis’ is more a collection of individual songs (hence being more akin to ‘Eating The Stars’ in some ways).
Opening track ‘Marienbad’ sets the tone for the atmosphere of the album, beginning with harmonised staccato vocals before giving way to a more fluid delivery, and then snapping back into regimented form. Its sparse instrumentation rises up underneath and eventually envelopes the track, typifying the conflict between control and playfulness that remains in careful balance throughout the album. ‘In The Same Room’ allows yet more of that playfulness to come through, while on the newer version of ‘Goddess Eyes’ she delves so far into the framework set by the original that she doubles its length, though the song still far from outstays its welcome.
As good a test as any for the quality of Holter’s songs, over the apparent inaccessibility of the ideas behind them on paper, is the number of labels falling over themselves to release them. ‘Ekstasis’ was released by RVNG Intl in March to not inconsiderable critical fanfare. Then last month Domino signed her for the UK and announced plans to release not just her next album, but re-release ‘Ekstasis’ too (not to mention a ‘soft’ digital reissue of ‘Tragedy’, the third release of that record).
Holter is also a stunning live performer too, her sold out appearance at Café Oto in London back in June by far one of the highlights of my year. Rightly treating the songs as entities in their own right, rather than attempting to recreate the layered recordings of them, she allows them to take on new life with tweaked and stripped down arrangements. And her voice, when experienced close up, is so powerful and near perfect it feels like a privilege to be allowed to hear it, particularly on ‘Our Sorrows’ and ‘Goddess Eyes’.
With that Domino deal still fresh and the company seemingly so eagerly behind her, its seems likely that the ever increasing interest in Holter’s music will continue its upward trajectory on into 2013, with her next album currently being prepared to meet that demand.
See all of CMU’s Artists Of The Year for 2012 here.
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