The third album by San Francisco-based jazz-folk chanteuse Jolie Holland has earned wildly disparate reactions from the music press thus far. Her first release for the venerated Anti- label, Springtime Can Kill You seems to go for the title belt from track one, looking to beat out Norah Jones, Fiona Apple, and all other more famous comers in the Sultry Circuit. As such, those who perennially root for the underdog are championing Ms. Holland’s opus as record of the year, even record of the five, ten, fifteen years. Likewise, perennial skeptics and traditionalists have remarked that Holland isn’t yet ready to contend, her warbled musings too formless and vague to hold their own in the ring. But the truth is somewhere firmly in between those two camps. Springtime won’t save or unravel the dignity of quality musicianship in the aughties; it’s simply a good album with a few really great songs.
There are many takes dust-bowl parlor songs, Franco-Americana, and pop seduction. If Jones’s appeal is her polish, and Apple’s her piss and vinegar, then Holland’s strength is poetry — and I don’t just mean fine lyrical play like “You’re like a saint’s son to me / I’ll try to sing it pure and easily / You’re like a Mexican blue.” Holland’s whole approach to her songs (and others’) is poetic, a dream-like, free-associative way of blending heartland and cosmopolitan sounds that may strike some ears as loose and uncommitted, but to others perfectly appropriate for her nostalgic, sepia-toned yarns. “Crush in the Ghetto” floats in on a bed of Hammond B3 organ and French horn, setting Springtime’s table with an afterglowing story of how new love can transform one’s world, “I’m flirting with the birds / I’m talking to the weeds / … and I feel like a Queen at the bus stop on the street / Look what you’ve done to me.” The band conjures a low-key, shuffling backdrop for Holland’s playfully swerving melody, reflecting the restrained giddiness of the lyric, and keeping the spotlight on her voice.
“Stubborn Beast” is another highlight, a lonely weeper fit for edge-of-town saloons, the heartbreaking question “Why don’t you take me when I’m willing” coursing from Holland’s lips like a lazy river. Keith Cary’s lap steel resonates in the background, bowing and bending, providing just enough atmosphere to serve the song without distracting. Like “Crush in the Ghetto”, “Beast” is insidiously catchy, hard as it is to keep up with Holland’s vocal twists and turns. “Moonshiner” is another fine original, ostensibly inspired by the traditional covered by the likes of Bob Dylan, Uncle Tupelo, and Cat Power, “Moonshiner, why don’t you come back home? / Now I’ve got to drink this store-bought stuff and go to bed all alone.” Holland drawls in complaint, jonesing not only for booze but company, “I loved you in the winter when you were far away / And the springtime almost killed me with the hot blood in my veins.” With its shared lyrical conceits, “Moonshiner” is a mirror for the gently swinging title track, where “High on the moonshine, bodies entwine.”
Not all of the songs shine as brightly as those mentioned above, merely “good” as opposed to “luminous”. Melodies start to blur together from one song to the next, and songs like “Please Don’t” drip so heavy with mood that they feel just a twinge overwrought at times. But there’s more than enough on Springtime Can Kill You to suggest a fierce upward trajectory. The closer, “Mexican Blue”, is a slow-building revelation with its terrifically delivered “When I was hungry you fed me / I don’t mean to suggest that I’m like Jesus Christ”. Two minutes into the song, a sparse but effective arrangement of drums, bass, and twinkling glockenspiel kicks in, establishing a firm, insistent rhythm for Holland to wiggle around. “There’s a mockingbird behind my house / Who is a magician of the highest degree / And I swear I heard him rip the world apart / And sew it back again with his fiery melody” she sings, and if she remains an apprentice to that ideal, she could very well pull off the same feat.