martes, 6 de marzo de 2012
Julia Holter - Ekstasis
Genre: Experimental, Electronic, Psychedelic
Label: RVNG Intl
Like a lot of home-recorded music in the indie sphere in the last few years, Ekstasis makes heavy use of atmosphere. There's plenty of reverb and vocal tracks are braided together into drones; it's the kind of swirly production that's good for hiding mistakes. But nothing Holter does feels random. This album is above all careful, and its deliberate construction allows it to work on a different plane from most music that scans as "ethereal." Ekstasis is not the sort of oceanic wash you lose yourself in; instead, Holter's music has a way of snapping tiny moments and small sonic gestures into focus.Ekstasis is above all smart, and it makes no apologies for it.
Holter's work exists at the intersection between pop and "serious" music. The mayor of that particular corner is Laurie Anderson, and there are obvious parallels between the two. You can hear Anderson in Holter's flat, chant-like inflection, which allows her music and lyrics to do the emotional work. You can also hear it in her love of simplicity and approach to mixing traditional instrumentation and electronics. Another touchstone is the dark magic of Klaus Nomi. It's not just that the tracks like "Fur Felix" bear a similarity to Nomi tracks like "Keys of Life", there's also an undercurrent of ritualism and theatricality in Holter's music. Ekstasisis certainly mysterious, but not because meaning is hard to pin down; it's more that there are so many possible meanings, so many places to focus your attention.
Listening to Ekstasis, I keep thinking about how it differs from music that feels superficially similar. The music of Julianna Barwick, for example, has liturgical overtones, bringing to mind stone and glass and voices rising in cathedrals. Barwick wants to tap into something beyond words. But Holter's music sounds like it was assembled in a dusty library a floor or two below the sanctuary. It's a few shades darker, but it's also based on ideas first and intuition second. Despite using vocoders, drum machines, and electronics, it feels "old" in part because Holter so deliberately connects her music to the distant past. On her debut album, she did so by basing her songs on a play from ancient Greece by Euripides; here, she pulls words and scenarios from literature and mixes them with her own idiosyncratic approach to words. The songs include quotes from the likes of Virginia Woolf and Frank O'Hara. A line from O'Hara's poem "Having a Coke With You"-- "I look at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world"-- animates "Moni Mon Ami", nestled amid the twinkling synths, strings, and keyboards that sound like harpsichord are original lines like "Hours become years when you're gone!"
Where Holter's Tragedy felt more like a tapestry, with vocal tracks mixed in with instrumental bits and interludes, Ekstasis leans toward proper songs, and it palette is more uniform. "In the Same Room", despite its chintzy drum machine and mechanized hand-claps, is actually a drama unfolding in close quarters. "In this very room, we spent the day and looked over antiquities. Don't you remember?" to which the other character replies, "Do I know you? I can't recall this face but I want to." You see it play out on paper on the lyric sheet and it feels like a linear exchange, but Holter twists the voices together and the narrative folds in on itself. It's there as pure, gorgeous sound if you want it-- you don't need to know what the songs are about to immerse yourself in this record-- but the deeper you go, the more the songs open up.
"I can see you but my eyes are not allowed to cry..." is a lyric from "Goddess Eyes", a new version of a song that appeared on Tragedy. It's a line from the Euripides play that inspired her first album, and it's delivered in processed voice reminiscent of a vocoder. So we have a 2,000-year old phrase run through a device that makes a human sound like a 1970s version of the robots of the future. And at the center of all this time travel stands Julia Holter, pulling in references and sounds from everywhere and shaping them into a music that's both haunting and life-affirming, something to make you dream and think.