Scratch a Busker, Find a Techno-Pop Chanteuse
Boston-based Lily Holbrook got her record deal by busking in T stations and in Harvard Square and other great venues for folky types. You’d think, with folk music being so hip and hot these days, that she would just stick with that for this record, her first for Virgin- and EMI-offshoot Back Porch Records. But no: it turns out that all any busker wants to do is to make techno-influenced pop music.
I do not have a problem with this, either in theory or in practice. This is a lovely album, full of great weird maximalist production touches (those Loch Ness guitar tones on “Better Left Unsaid”!) and hooks that actually stay with the listener. But it doesn’t sound anything like all those corny folkie dudes that used to keep me up by singing “Sugar Mountain” on infinite repeat when I lived in Boston.
What it sounds more like is that Lily Holbrook loves Kate Bush and Björk and Joni Mitchell and Juliana Hatfield and Liz Phair more than she is concerned about adhering to any Catie Curtis/Lucy Kaplansky template. She’s more of a power hitter than a bunter, and that’s great, as far as I’m concerned. Ani DiFranco has gotten more interesting over the years, because she is willing to risk her purist audience to make weirder wilder music; Holbrook must have stolen her playbook, and I couldn’t be happier about that, because talent like this needs room to fly.
This is an album that actually wants to be HEARD. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear “Bleed”, with its dense walls of rockthrob, underscoring the next girl-girl hookup on The O.C., and “When in Rome” (which re-does new wave almost as well as Bowling for Soup or Fountains of Wayne) could completely fit in among the Pinks and Avrils and Hilarys and Fefes and Skyes that have come to brighten up girlpop in the last few years: “You think there’s nothing else I’d rather do / Than sit here and sell myself to you”. She’s got melodies and something to say and a compelling voice, and she wants to rock out sometimes, and I’m in favor of all these things.
Which doesn’t mean that Holbrook isn’t only about the big hit single. “Mermaids” is portentous Tori-worship, all piano arpeggios and surprising accordion’n'string poignance, a song about remaining inside one’s dreamworld to avoid the shitty reality that surrounds us. It’s pretty, but Holbrook has no problem with pretty songcraft. “Cowboys and Indians”, which actually does sound like folk music, will not leave my head even after the CD is over, and “Running into Walls” is the same way even though it actually pulls out the ancient Humpty Dumpty metaphor. (I thought the Geneva Convention had outlawed this. Clearly, I need to do some research.)
Holbrook does not have a lot of different themes. She is obsessed with notions of conventional female beauty; this is not a bad thing to take aim at, as it is truly one of the worst things about our “modern” society, but she beats this rug on several different tracks and doesn’t find anything new to say about it. (If I didn’t know better, I’d make some stupid comment here about how it’s always the young attractive women who sing about this topic but I know what assholes kids can be, and I’m sure that Holbrook was just gawky or “unusual-looking” enough to get some mean things said about her. I think she’s gotten over that now, judging by the CD photos, but I also know that some scars never heal.) Hopefully, with time, Holbrook will gain a wider songwriting palette.
The song that will gain more than its share of attention will be her cover of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Mama, I’m Coming Home”. She does this as a tribute to her dead brother Christopher as kind of a trip-hop chillout track, slow and soothing, about as far from a power ballad as this song could ever be, with chattering drum patterns and psychedelic echo effects… but when the strings come in at 2:30, it still brings a bit of a lump to the throat. Then, a minute later, when the final chorus comes, it hits pretty hard.
Okay, yeah, I really like this record. If she didn’t swear so much on “Make Them Wonder” (“They want robot sex with a pretty machine / They want a dirty little girl whose mouth tastes clean / Well they’re all fucked up on the American dream / Who are they to call me obscene”) I’d give this to my daughter to play and learn and memorize. As it is, I might do that anyway, after I listen to it 100 more times myself.