Ten years into her recording career that has yielded five albums, Jolie Holland has before toyed with American musical forms: the jazz-tinged Springtime Can Kill You from 2006 gave way to the country patina of 2008’s The Living and the Dead, which begat the lo-fi collection of set poems on 2011’s Pint of Blood with her band the Grand Chandeliers subtly filling in the spaces. Distilling these elements with an infusion of blues, soul and avant-garde energy, Holland ups the decibels on her latest album, Wine Dark Sea.
Now working with an ensemble cast of musicians from New York’s experimental music scene, including two drummers, a quartet of guitars, squawking horns and woodwinds, Wine Dark Sea begins with a rumble of fuzz and feedback on the intentionally maudlin opener, “On and On”. Holland then plunks into the cold piano jazz of “First Signs of Spring”, juxtaposing winter’s hold on a “big city block” against a budding romance before lamenting lost love on the meandering blues of “Dark Days” with its trembling, climactic guitar squalls. Shifting gears for “Route 30”, a homespun traversing of America’s byways, marks the album’s departure from any set structure.
As on Pint of Blood where Holland reimagined Townes Van Zandt’s “Rex’s Blues” into a piano ballad, Wine Dark Sea demonstrates Holland’s understanding of composition and purity of vision, transforming Joe Tex’s R&B classic “The Love You Save” into a sultry soul duet. Here too she continues to affect her vocal delivery, wavering between a plaintive warble on the minimalistic “I Thought It Was the Moon” and near breathlessness on the Tom Waits-esque barroom roll of “Palm Wine Drunkard”. Verging close at times to Lucinda Williams’ dirt road drawl, Holland possesses many more facets. Consistently delivered with guttural conviction, Holland’s voice is just as much an instrument on Wine Dark Sea as the bass clarinet introduced on the jazzy “All the Love”. Accordingly modulating but at times muddled, Holland’s voice and her elongated delivery at times render her lyrics that bridge loss and love’s divide indecipherable, no more so than on the ambivalent and improvisational “Out on the Wine Dark Sea”.
Holland’s musical influences shine through on Wine Dark Sea. Its unafraid experimentation speaks to the compositions of John Cage, the broad and varied styles Nina Simone, the casual indifference of the aforementioned Waits and most notably the Staple Singers on the album closer, “Waiting for the Sun”. In a state of repose amidst a slinking bass line, Holland chides with the brashness of Mavis Staples before giving way to her band to darken the proceedings in an unhurried storm of hybrid soul-funk commotion.
Produced by Holland, Wine Dark Sea is a triumph of artistic growth and ambition. Its players both complement and compete with Holland and one another. Afforded both the space and license to come and go at will, such fearlessness on the part of Holland is the album’s greatest asset. Such an endeavor in lesser hands would be a cobbled patchwork of styles rather than a keen fusion of disparate forms. With Wine Dark Sea Holland has put her own enduring stamp on American music.