Review by Joe Hallsworth
Julia Holter is an artist that never shies away from literary inspiration; her 2011 debut Tragedy took its core theme from Euripides’s Hippolytus, 2012’s critically lauded Ekstasis itself named after the Greek philosophical conception of a state of being outside oneself, and Loud City Song is no different. Colette’s 1944 novella Gigi is used as a thematic basis in which Holter explores the contemporary media’s infatuation with celebrity. The tale of young Gigi who is inadvertently groomed for a career as a courtesan in gossipy turn-of-the-century Paris, is an ideal way of exploring the superficial nature of her native LA. But despite Holter’s use of high concept it does not make her music impenetrable, as she successfully merges these themes with classic pop sensibilities.
Loud City Song is remarkably the third album in as many years for Julia Holter and her first for the Domino label. More importantly however it is the first that Holter has not recorded in her bedroom and used midi patches for extra instrumentation. Instead she includes a group of additional musicians to play instruments live to give the album a more expansive feel. The album consists of experimental chamber-pop songs, as on previous albums, but in places is more accessible without losing its sense of artistic integrity.
The album’s opener ‘World’ is theatrical and sparse; a contrast to the density of Ekstasis and instantly feels distinct due to the album’s cleaner production. Horns swell and surround Holter’s vocals with the song’s narrator feeling almost invisible wandering through LA, stating “The city can’t see my eyes/ Under the brim”- her hat acting as a way of shielding herself from the sometimes oppressive forces of the city. The horns in this track, and throughout the album in general, provide at times a soothing tone but are subject to instant changes in tone that seem almost ominous and warning- representing sudden changes in the atmosphere of the city.
Following on from ‘World’ is arguably the album’s centrepiece ‘Maxim’s I’, that incorporates a lot of Holter’s trademarks with sharp quickly-changing chord progressions and lucid vocals. It is incredibly referential to Colette’s Gigi, with the name of the track itself deriving from the name of the restaurant that is of thematic importance to Gigi’s tale and is applied to modern day LA. The narrator of the track walks in to a restaurant where “Tonight the birds are watching/Do they have more important things to do?” She is being stared at, as if she has an unknown secret to give to the onlookers.
This gives an almost nervous tone that is also seen at the start of ‘In the Green Wild’, but
atmosphere quickly changes half-way through. The beginning is eerie and insinuates that there is some sort of danger, but then eventually gives way to a more secure and ethereal sound. This airy tone that the track finishes on blends in to the beginning of ‘Hello Stranger’, which is not too dissimilar from the longer, more ambient tracks heard on Ekstasis, as it contains the stretched out and reverberated sounds that feel otherworldly yet safe.
But this false sense of security is severed as ‘Maxim’s II’ involves Holter’s vocals abruptly breaking the peace and carries on the themes presented in ‘Maxim I’, except presented in a significantly different way. The vocals are anxious and quite haunting in places, the horns and strings are claustrophobic and uneasy. A sudden lull occurs to near silence, apart from the occasional whispered line from Holter. But an abrupt eruption of horns and strings carry on the same tone that we are introduced to at the beginning of the song. Although this has a significant purpose for the album when placed alongside ‘Maxim’s I’ with regards to theme, I can’t help but think that the abrasive use of horns and strings here – in comparison to the rest of the album – seems slightly out of place. What it does do however is engage the listener and breaks the comforting and secure sounds that the previous song brings.
Following on from ‘Maxim’s II’ the album resumes a calmer sound, with ‘This is a True Heart’ providing the most pop-like song on the album. The album’s closer ‘City Appearing’ is, along with ‘Maxim’s I’, possibly the strongest song on the album. It combines images that are prevalent throughout the LP into the song’s lyrics. Birds, hats and restaurants are all mentioned as they all form the complete picture of the city that she is strolling through. The song feels secure and calming whilst incorporating intricately layered textures of horns and strings, which merge with rolling percussion that do not overpower Holter’s vocals but instead highlight and accentuate its beauty.
Julia Holter’s brave step out of her own bedroom production and into a professional studio with additional live instrumentation is a successful one. It provides Loud City Song with a cinematic feel, whilst also not losing the emotional resonance that her songs carry.
Holter’s work has gone from strength to strength and it will be interesting to see how she incorporates these more expansive sounds into her intimate live shows when she performs at The Deaf Institute in Manchester on November 13th.