Loud City Song, the new record from Los Angeles singer/songwriter Julia Holter is out today. It’s the follow-up to last year’s Ekstasis, an odd pop collection that felt simultaneously futuristic and antique, and happened to be my second-favorite album of 2012. This one is just as good if not better (though this is a better year for music than last year, already, by far). It’s a quiet record, with moments of hurried motion that always reset to stillness. Try listening to it at a human-level on earbuds while waiting for the subway, and it practically dissolves against the screeching halt of train wheels or the boombox volume of any self-respecting dance crew. That seems unusual for an album supposedly inspired by the metropolitan buzzing of city life in L.A., but maybe a more vibrant car culture explains that a bit. Little bubbles of personal space traveling to and from centers of activity. It's a soundtrack for the sort of city-dweller who likes to witness the action while safely off to the side.
The move from bedroom recording to in-studio production is Holter's most important shift forward. The dense, hissy vocal layering of Ekstasis made that record feel unreal, contained-in-head, a stack of slightly different dream-selves piling upward. Loud City Song switches easily between moods, modes, personas. Multi-tracked backing flourishes creep in here and there. But most of the material has a single-mic directness suggesting a performance for an audience, if not a literal one. She sounds like she’s standing alone on the stage of an avant garde cabaret constructed for some modernist musical production, an imaginary ambient jazz club where every patron shuts the fuck up and leans in to hear the quietest parts.
A slow, sad version of the hit 1963 single “Hello Stranger” is the height of the album's romantic cabaret vibe. While her voice can raise to a thin, childish timbre in places, she doesn't have to strain for soulful. In livelier moments, Holter prefers a whisper, emulating low-roar cafe murmurs or fevered interior monologues. "In the Green Wild" has a raised-pulse spookiness to it, capturing the big city feeling of observing so many people over the years that you've probably, technically, become qualified to be a anthropologist or, even better, a private eye. The track list mostly moves with the grace of an erratic feather float, so it's surprising when she manages to tweak the sound towards ominous suspense. The breathy pursuit noises of “Horns Surrounding Me” remind me of either a 40s radio play or a 90s perfume commercial, and kept me from noticing the tasteful electronic throb underneath them until later listens. The level of detail present is ripe for that sort of closer listening, but there's balance. Nothing stands in the way of letting it all whoosh past.
Holter’s fond of framing her songs and records around classic works. Ancient Greek drama and French art-cinema from the early 60s informed Ekstasis. Here, inspiration and stray geographical details are taken from Gigi, a French novel from the 40s about high-society romance in 1890s Paris, turned into an American movie musical in the late 50s. This tactic establishes a kind or regal remove from the grubby pop-culture of the moment, and acts as antidote to the sort of oversharing social media overloads us with. It keeps you from reading lyrics as the usual singer songwriter confessions, the intended-to-be-transfixing train wrecks of a new Fiona Apple record, or the dejected hush of an old one by Elliott Smith, say. You never feel like you’re getting a version of her real life. There’s still intimacy, though. Holter lets you in on her silly bouts of bored dress-up, shows you an artist’s refuge from the real. It’s pretentious, maybe, but with a non-pejorative use of the word. It’s make-believe.
Profiles to this point have probably oversold Holter’s background in academic composition. It’s true that she’s drawing from a wider music-theory tool-kit than your average DIY singer. The nimble fluidity of the songs might be too intricate for a novice to stumble upon. But she has a light touch with her material that lets it overcome all sorts of things that might otherwise seem annoying on paper, even when accurately described. You acknowledge the “Jazz-clubby-ness”, maybe a little “drama-kid-icity”, but the overall effect is elegant, adult. And crucially, that sophistication doesn't come with any cynicism attached. It’s a record that's wide-eyed and bright, that works mainly as whimsical pop. It's unusual, yet still soft-cotton cozy. It's more charming than you thought it might be.
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