Early American folk songs were bound together with the idea of telling a story through music. The protagonists in many of this nation’s earliest known hymns, spirituals and dirges sang about their journeys, escaping trouble, roaming free and wandering to find a better life, or at least a different one. Just listen to “This Land is Your Land,” “Wayfaring Stranger” or “Wade in the Water.” There’s a sense of freewheeling that is rarely heard in much of today’s music, most of which is concerned with the “scene” and inclusive in-jokes and references. No longer do our singers roam free, they frequent the same clubs and bars with the same types of people, content on leaving their stories in the vans from which they came. Or so it would seem.
But then Jolie Holland came along, clearly nostalgic for the days in which a song was more than just verses slapped together. On her debut, Catalpa, the young Texan proved her ability to recreate the free spiritedness of old-timey folk music on her multi-track recorder. And it makes perfect sense — her bio reads like a travelogue, as Holland, a native Texan, has lived everywhere from the Lone Star state to San Francisco to New Orleans to Vancouver. On her newest, Escondida, she’s perfected her form, leaving one to wonder whether or not she actually built a time machine to assist her in her songwriting.
Jolie Holland’s music is, put simply, classic American folk music at its best. Her voice seems to have been transported straight from the golden age of radio. Many have compared her to Billie Holiday, though she tackles a range that goes beyond vocal jazz into almost limitless territory. “Goodbye California” is Holland taking on country. “Old Fashioned Morphine”‘s ode to opiates falls somewhere between negro spiritual and whorehouse jazz. “Darlin’ Ukelele” is not just a clever title, it’s actually played with a genuine uke’. And her take on the traditional “Mad Tom of Bedlam” is a voice-and-drum swing duo that spins circles around the listener.
Lyrically, Holland touches upon classic themes of hitting the road (“Goodbye California”), parting lovers (“Sascha”) and, well, morphine (“Old Fashioned Morphine”). Though, nothing on the album comes close to the anger heard on the standout “Do You,” which has Holland whispering “you motherfucker” to an ex-lover. No matter what the subject matter, Holland sings every note with heart and conviction. Though most of her material is laid-back and easy-going, she has soul, and an old one at that. Her songs would sound more apt to be coupled with the hiss and crackle of an old 78 than the LCD of an mp3 player. But if newfound interest in folkies like Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom and Billboard Top 200 tenure of O Brother, Where Art Thou? are any indication, a modern audience is definitely ready for Holland’s brand of traditional Americana.
If one were to hear Escondida for the first time in its entirety without any prior knowledge of Jolie Holland, one would assume that it was an album of standards. And that’s what’s so remarkable about Holland — all but two songs on the album are originals. Where many would be content to file through the Library of Congress, Holland decided to do the damn thing all by herself (well, for the most part). Jolie Holland is an American songwriter in the truest sense, whose music is beautiful and relevance immeasurable.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.