I chose to delay writing my review of Loud City Song, the third full-length release from Los Angeles resident Julia Holter, simply because I wanted to give myself time to get my head around it. The album is apparently inspired by Gigi, the multi-Oscar winning Vincente Minelli musical, and if you think that sounds like an unusual basis for a potential breakout album, you would be correct. The world of Loud City Song requires time, patience, and concentration, but the effort does not go unrewarded as Holter has crafted an album quite unlike anything else you’ll hear this year.
Loud City Song has the same quality of the work of Joanna Newsom in that its touchstones and inspirations seem so far anachronistic compared to most contemporary music. At times, especially during the two parts of the “Maxims” suite, it’s as if the listener has stepped into a nightmarish Disney soundtrack with the brightness and mawkishness replaced by an uneasy atmosphere. “World” opens the album with a freeform structure and a soft choral accompaniment to Holter’s even softer lead vocal. Sparse piano notes and a horn section do eventually join in, but it is a sleepy and disorienting opening.
About a minute into “Maxims I,” the first part of the suite that forms the closest thing Loud City Song has to a core, we hear the album suddenly expand and begin to breathe. Holter’s vocals are inflected with an accent, all part of her decision to play various characters on the album, and that sense of unease only adds to the strangeness, with a whispered, gossipy chorus of “Will they eat a piece of cheese or will they talk?” “Maxims II” begins with the same structure in a more upbeat manner, but eventually descends into a somewhat-chaotic, horn-driven climax, another example of how this album’s more expansive production has benefited Holter.
If all this sounds unapproachable, in reality, it’s the opposite. Loud City Song has moments of clarity and beauty amongst all the oddness. “In The Green Wild” has a melody that is initially elusive, but trying to chase it down in between the limber double bass line and the innovative sound mix is a lot of fun. When the song does settle down in its second half, it subtly transforms into something gorgeous and haunting. “Horns Surrounding Me” contains what, in relative terms, counts as the album’s most propulsive percussion, driving a tune that recalls Kate Bush’s otherworldly prime in the early eighties.
Most impressive of all is “Hello Stranger,” the often-covered Barbara Lewis hit that takes on a new lease of life here thanks to Holter’s glorious, weightless arrangement, resulting in a six-and-a-half-minute song that is suspended in time and reminiscent of Sigur Ros’s best work (she actually opened for the Icelandic band on tour last year). It is the album’s simplest and prettiest song, and I mean that in the most complimentary way.
Ultimately the biggest problem with Loud City Song is also its biggest strength: it is an album of quiet triumphs and a subtle dynamism trying to find a place in a world where the most attention seems to be paid to those who shout loudest. Julia Holter is emerging as a special talent but one who relies on a deep focus, both on her own behalf and on behalf of the listener. Taking that extra time to get my head around the album has paid dividends, and the hope is that others follow suit. Loud City Song is well worth the effort.
Tickets to Julia Holter’s show at the First Unitarian Church on Wednesday, September 11th, are available here.
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