The uncategorizable Jolie Holland proved in her last band, the critically acclaimed Be Good Tanyas, that she works from a deep knowledge of roots music history -- she obviously lives and breathes this stuff. Her official solo debut, Escondida (an earlier disc, essentially a low-fi demo, Catalpa, was good enough to land on several critics' year-end lists for 2003), furthers the notion that Holland was born listening to the Anthology of American Folk Music, Bix Beiderbecke 78s, Rose Maddux, and various blues.
But rather than merely wearing influences on her sleeve and calling it postmodern, Holland is PoMo at its best: forget mimicking styles or making ironic statements; instead, she has fun with her influences, using music history as a catalyst for previously unthought of combinations. She re-works "Old Time Religion" into "Old-Fashioned Morphine" ("It was good enough for my grandpa/It's good enough for me"), wraps it in a warm New Orleans brass arrangement and references literary rebels like William S. Burroughs and Isabelle Eberhardt. She takes an old British folk tune, "Tom of Bedlam," and swings it like a 30s scat song. She appropriates a jazzy Carolina blues to sing about being a modern "Poor Girl" ("a couple of food stamps and a caffeine buzz"). And she runs the gamut of country emotion from earthy despair to holy joy all in the course of one song, "Goodbye California." Her arrangements, which can be as spare as one piano or as full as a horn-inflected jazz combo, are sophisticated and subtle, and her phrasing is razor sharp and often surprising.
In the end, though, what jets Holland to another level is her amazing voice, which is supple, straight out of Texas, and often takes on the role of a separate instrument. On "Sascha," for instance, her vocal technique is reminiscent of Stephane Grapelli's jazz violin style; talk about being taken by surprise.
Holland's is a singular talent -- which makes for great music but generally poor marketability. One day maybe music execs will once again figure out that "completely original" is marketable, and artists like Jolie Holland will be household names.
Track to Burn: "Sascha"
Grade: A --John Grooms
I Am A Cold Rock. I Am Dull Grass; A Tribute to Will Oldham
Most tribute albums are marked by fate long before conception. Few, if any, are stamped as indispensable when considered alone, or even essential in relation to the covered artist's own work. For most such compilations are little more than collector's curiosities destined to harvest dust in a fanatic's all-inclusive compendium or the used bin at the neighborhood album exchange. The reason, in short, being that they tend to suffer both from misapplied artist-worship and the pitfall of any greatest hits recording: No matter your favorite cuts from the artist's discography, several are guaranteed to be absent. It's unfortunate, but them's the rules.
I Am A Cold Rock. I Am Dull Grass - which facelifts songs from all Oldham's monikers - is, as a whole, unfortunately not the exception, though there is some worthy iPod playlist material here. Pinetop Seven's Irish-inflected twang-up of "A Minor Place" is the freshest in the batch, but Calexico, The Impossible Shapes, Scout Niblett, and B-side cover master Iron & Wine all chip in to make the experience more pleasant than not -- because, hey, at the end of the day, despite which surgeon is holding the knife, these are still Will Oldham songs.
Track to Burn: "A Minor Place" (Pinetop 7)
Grade: B- --William Morris
Whether he likes it or not, Dave Alvin has become an elder statesman of roots rock. The Blasters, Alvin's first band, mixed traditional country and Los Angeles punk and blew the doors off alternative country before it even had a name.
As the years have passed and the Blasters recede into legend, Alvin has not gone gently into that good night. Ashgrove finds a mellower Alvin, still one of the best guitarists and songwriters out there, spinning tales of childhood memories, unsympathetic ex-wives, and as always, bad love.
"Nine Volt Heart," is an elegy to how radio once changed peoples' lives, "plastic silver nine volt heart/you click it on and let the music start/and the radio was his toy." Then there's the chilling "The Man In The Bed," a heartbreaking lament about a fearful hospital patient in complete denial, "The man in the bed isn't me/ Now I slip out the door and I'm running free/ young and wild like I'll always be."
Eminently old-fashioned yet never old, Ashgrove is a study of a constantly maturing songwriter uninterested in proving anything to anyone but himself. Perhaps with age comes wisdom. And while not exactly breathtaking, it's a fine addition to Alvin's oeuvre.
Track to Burn: "Nine Volt Heart"
Grade: B --Tara E. Flanagan