It’s not unusual for a singer-songwriter who performs under their own name, as Julia Holter does, to introduce the musicians in their backing band towards the end of a live set. It’s rare that they point to the sound man and introduce him, too, as Holter does with Ernst Hölscher. But that is typical of Holter’s ability to unsettle the ordinary; typical of the way her songs lurch into the unexpected, sending seemingly straightforward romantic tunes off-kilter and making jagged avant-classical compositions coalesce into neat pop.
Her appreciation of her sound engineer is typical, too, of the pristine nature of her music: glassy, pellucid, silvery as moonlight. There is such precision to it, such rigour, that her songs might be arranged following complex mathematical formulas. Feel You, from her new album, Have You in My Wilderness, has a regular time signature but plays such a convoluted game of hopscotch with it that it’s hard to tell. Attempts to trace the rhythm of Vasquez are doomed to failure: drummer Corey Fogel prowls and leaps across the bar, Devin Hoff’s hands dance about the double bass, and Holter’s piano notes disregard both. The ease and grace with which they merge into a conventional 4/4 rhythm is startling; from there, the song becomes a sinuous lament, Dina Maccabee’s viola keening, Holter’s ululating vocal the cry of a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer.
Without that element of mystery, of collusion with supernatural forces, Holter’s music might sound coolly austere: with it, it is magical. The sea is conjured up inLucette Stranded on the Island, as viola and percussion sketch whirling gulls and shimmering waves, but so is something uncanny that builds up and crashes, as though watery spirits had answered Holter’s call. The viola that opens How Long is sticky as treacle, tendrils of it wrapping around Holter’s low intoned vocal and gnomic pronouncements. An older song, Marienbad, clinks like a fortune-teller’s crystals; its notes are clear and pure, but its atmosphere is ominous.
The deepest mystery running through Holter’s songs is that of human relations, and just occasionally, the sound of them is one of simple delight. This Is a True Heart is stylish as a French romance; Everytime Boots skips along like a tune from a musical, until its perkiness is fractured and becomes clatter. Love might not be harmonious, but Holter’s marriage of modern classical with pop, jazz and everything in between certainly is.