Since her unintentional debut Catalpa, Jolie Holland has grown progressively as a songwriter. Granted, the recordings featured on that album were never meant for release and mostly consist of her scratchy vocals over a single acoustic guitar, and only occasionally feature an extra layer of harmony or a banjo. But even those songs showed such poise that it demanded the release of unfinished recordings. Her Texan roots shone through in those days, the pain and torture of America bled through her songs. It was Daniel Johnston-esque, in that her incredible talent was impossible to ignore despite her simplistic recording techniques.
The same was true of her second album, and first “official” release, Escondida. Her recording resources had improved, but she still leaned towards a lo-fi style reminiscent of the old records we love so much, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday. We hardly noticed as each song effortlessly jumped genres and generations—from old swing to R&B to country—nor could we possibly imagine that such a songwriter existed in this new millenium. Holland brought us a true sense of the past, and tried to impress upon us nothing but simple music as we had long since forgotten it. Springtime Can Kill You and The Living and the Dead allowed Holland to spread herself a bit more—she settled into styles and followed more developed themes, but undoubtedly always fell in line as herself. The respect she gained from musicians and critics throughout the country was hardly a surprise.
Her latest effort, Pint of Blood continues that growth. With still improved resources and an excellent group of musicians around her—The Grand Chandeliers features Shazad Ismaily’s bass, guitarist Grey Gersten, and honorary member Mark Ribot—Holland now achieves a sound she probably never imagined for herself eight or even five years ago. The album’s opener, “All Those Girls” is a far cry from Catalpa’s “I Wanna Die”. The former is a forlorn love song, the drawn out distortion of rusty electric guitars practically does the job itself of ripping your heart out. The latter, though titled so morbidly, proclaims her wish with such conviction that you almost laugh. She claims “I wanna die” as one might say “I’m hungry” or “I think I’ll go for a swim”, and you are forced to accept it: “Well if that’s how you feel then go ahead, die.”
Her reworking of “The Littlest Birds” (originally from Catalpa, and re-introduced as simply “Littlest Birds” on this release) is one show of how far she’s moved from her former sentimentality. The original, performed with only her vocals and an acoustic guitar, displays through emotion and context exactly what she sings about – her repetition of the line, “the littlest birds sing the prettiest songs” is sung not only as a show of confidence in her meager means, but as a form of hope. In the new version, the same repetitious line over a full band’s arrangement is almost a cry of sarcasm and irony—her voice grows louder and more desperate until the words lose their original significance.
But as the album progresses, you find more Holland in every song. Despite the increased use of electric guitars and distortion, the lyrics are undeniably hers. “Wreckage” cries “if disappointment was a drug, I overdosed again” and “The Devil’s Sake” begins “Only an angel sent from up above could tell me if you’re the Devil or the one I should love”. Later in the song, she pleads, “Heaven help me, if only for the devil’s sake.”
Pint of Blood ends on what is probably the most beautiful moment. A cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Rex’s Blues” finds Holland alone with a piano. Her voice chirps like those little birds she once sang of, and takes the song as if it were her own: “If I had a nickel, I’d find a game / If I won a dollar, I’d make it rain / If it rained an ocean I’d drink it dry / and lay me down dissatisfied.” A smooth howl is what she leaves us on, accepting change for the sake of history.