Jolie Holland's Escondida positively reeks of authenticity. You can smell the draft beer seeping into the mahogany bar and see the hanging smoke go from gray to blue as it passes by the stage lights. You can hear the gravel crunch as it spits from under the passing tire and feel the sun twist the back of your neck on a cloudless day. The only things missing from Escondida are the audible scratches and static of the needle as it passes through a 78's grooves.
Escondida's songs sound like they were dug up out of an Americana burial ground, antiseptically cleansed of all decay and deterioration and freshly repackaged. Holland's natural authenticity is what helped make her debut album Catalpa an underground sensation, acquiring fans like Tom Waits and landing her a deal with Epitaph's offshoot Anti- Records. Escondida puts Holland in a studio with some session players, but it doesn't dilute her genuine approach to American music; blues, jazz, folk, and country are all distilled into Holland's timeless songs.
For those who have not yet heard it, Holland's voice is her not-so-secret weapon. Her voice is like a sugar crystal: sweet, but rough and unrefined around its natural edges. It's unusually expressive without being garish, idiosyncratic without being polarizing, and echoes a legion of vocalists from generations past. Escondida is a perfect vehicle to showcase such a voice: simple songs, uncomplicated arrangements, and little interference from the supporting musicians.
Escondida's laments of loves lost and missed are the musical equivalent of yawning and stretching in the late evening or early morning, the scratching of an itch on the head, the ruffling of bedhead, the somewhat disoriented state associated with exhaustion. It's lazily beautiful stuff. "Old Fashioned Morphine" is a two-chord blues in the guise of a waking, half-drunk New Orleans spiritual. With the help of a brass section that sways like two hours past last call, Holland's eerie ode to oblivion beckons with a knowing calm. "I'm wandering around on a cloud," Holland sings in the regretful "Sascha", and you don't doubt her for a moment. Her voice seems to hit all the right notes, jumping and ducking the melody with precision; in other words, Holland goes where she wants to, and no matter how far or quickly she strays from the road, she's always right on.
One of Holland's strongest characteristics is being able to infect a rambling folksy tune with the energy and sophistication of a jazz singer. The traditional song "Mad Tom of Bedlam" begins with Holland nimbly singing a complex melody, accompanied by brushes riffing on a snare drum. Her voice, careening around the melody, is a lot like a jazz player's improve and brings to mind the opening to John Coltrane's "Countdown". Regardless of this song's lyrics -- which streak by in mid-motion flashes -- Holland's delivery is like a kind of poetry dressed in a Texan drawl. "Black Stars" ventures very close to total improvisation, as its vocal line is not so much a melody but a speculation on melodic possibilities. Holland uses the lyrics' bobbing inflection ("Though it was dim when you arrived / It was as if we had both died / And gone somewhere else / You and myself") to warble and flutter the melody until it's entirely inconsequential.
Holland's voice mutates exponentially throughout the course of Escondida's lean runtime, and each shift in timbre is as inviting as the last. Vowels are contorted and reshaped in "Goodbye California", brief, trembled whistles pepper the patient "Do You?", and words are formed like trumpet notes in the piano romp "Amen". Holland (a Texas native and ex-Be Good Tanya) is not merely a student, but a spellbinder of American music. For lovers of all strands of Americana -- not to mention those who revel in the effortless performance of a truly unique singer -- Escondida is a little treasure, and a beguiling addition to any collection.