In the Bleecker Street basement of Le Poisson Rouge, singer-composer Julia Holter's star begins its ascent
8:50 am Mar. 8, 2012
There was a singular feeling in the air Tuesday night at Julia Holter's New York debut concert at Le Poisson Rouge: the star is here.
Everything about the night, and about Holter's just released second album Ekstasis, makes this evident. At the show, folks got dreamy eyed, smiled mid-song as things tripped over a cooing, drumless verse into an enchanting, uptempo chorus. Holter herself was a vision of poise behind her Korg and Roland keyboards, head tilted and eyes focused into infinity with just enough softness to seem expressive and just enough disconnect to seem a little post-human.
The night was presented by Wordless Music and RVNG (who put out Ekstasis), and was billed as something mystical. The opener, pianist Sarah Cahill, took that aspect very seriously, putting together a recital she called “The Mystical Tone,” a collection of works dealing with the attempt to re-enchant science with stardust via Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, Transcendentalism, and astrology. It included Cahill's primary passions, Ruth Crawford and Henry Cowell, as well as Alexander Scriabin and Erik Satie. The series of short works explored the space of tonal experimentalization and free rhythm somehow outside or against the Germanic musical progress narrative. Cahill's a passionate advocate of this line of composition, but something about the concept of unknowable, fleeting sensation through tone was undercut by her scattered and wry comments between each piece, making the evening feel more like a lecture than a mystical experience.
The air changed when Holter and her small band, a drummer and a cellist, took the stage. The former California Institute of the Arts student and bedroom musician, whose meandering vocals and free-form songwriting bear the testimony of her sound experimentations without collaborators or large audiences, came to the stage primed. Her voice, full of bell-like strikes and fades and with breathy, perfect pitch, took over immediately, and her hands filled in the rest of the space with arpeggios that kept things moving or simmered it all down with new-age pads. The band was clearly a pick-up group, and although Holter expressed wonder at all the creative ideas they were having, the arrangements were not so wondrous. The cellist outlined the root notes, pulsing a little or adding that all important shimmery “texture,” while the drummer avoided the kick until the big parts and employed chimes like punchlines.
And that's fitting, because for all her natural star poise, and all the expectation in the audience, it was hard to take her too seriously. Her vowels betray her keen study of British prog, or at least British folk, and her unblinking deployment of the word “dream” over untroubled major keys toned to sound like Isao Tomita veers toward parody. Holter plays as though draped in cool reference points, but the result veers between aching self-seriousness and corniness. The songs, even pop jams like “In the Same Room,” never quite get out of the syrup of tepid, unspecified longing. Such is the mysticism at the heart of Holter's music, less the question of how science and sound come together to make the world (as Björk has been investigating, brilliantly, these days) and more about self-aggrandizing accoutrementation. Trés L.A.
And yet, miraculously, hardly a soul cracked a grin during “Try To Make Yourself a Work of Art,” a track from Holter's 2011 album, Tragedy. In it, the title phrase is intoned repeatedly in a Bauhaus-style dirge over the wavering of the single Korg keyboard chord.
Perhaps they were all compelled by the winking paraphrase of Aphrodite's criticism of Hippolytus, or it was because, as the song never veers from its naïve position even as the sonic darkness grows all around it, it's hard to find any room for critical thinking while mired in it, or maybe it was because her voice is so delightful that everyone was willing to step away from the true New York science of cynicism.
Among the beards and babbles, the clatter of thirtysomethings sitting down to some good old esoteric pop dinner theater was stone serious and perfectly credulous. It certainly seemed the audience were well primed to adore their next goddess ascendant.
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