Sounds Like: A change of tune from a true Texas troubadour.
Jolie Holland is a rare breed of songwriter. Like her fellow Texan Townes Van Zandt, she evokes the type of musician who moves from town to town, singing for their supper, unfolding tales of all the characters she’s met along the way. Her discography is full of records that do just this, but her 2008 release “The Living and The Dead” is where she fully took on this persona.
“The Living and The Dead” marked a shift for Jolie Holland. Up to that point, after leaving the Be Good Tanyas, her solo work was a sort of creaky, noir folk, with instrumentation that wouldn’t feel off on a Tom Waits album. Here she put aside the drunken horns for more of a straight Americana sound, where the guitars shine, the vocals are crisp and the production is sleek. All in service of Holland’s songs.
The first three tracks unfold flawlessly, each with their tale of real people and situations. Kicking things off, “Mexico City” tells us about Jack, Edie, the long road, the black smoke, the living, and the dead. It’s a sparkly, inviting track that jangles and sets the table for the rest of the album.
The second song, “Corrdo Por Buddy” is an absolute heartbreaker, detailing the loss of an acquaintance. It asks the question that I think we all encounter at one point or another: could I have done more? As Holland unfolds her limited interactions, you can hear how each one is now treasured, if not painful, memory of one gone too soon.
“Palmyra” might be my favorite song in her whole repertoire, and though we now know it’s partly about a slimy encounter with Ryan Adams, it still speaks to something more universal. That feeling of picking yourself up, and realizing that no one can take your power unless you let them. The way the song builds, from the rose petal imagery to the rousing Chorus “I will dance at your funeral if you dance at mine” is just perfect. Is it a taunt? An invitation? A Farewell? That’s up to you.
But the hits keep coming even after the stellar run of the first three tunes. “Fox in It’s Hole” follows next, and it is a dark and murky track, that may be as close to Holland’s previous work as we get on this record; that’s not a bad thing. Holland’s earlier records are all great, and this track amongst the brighter numbers allows the album to breath.
The tender “Sweet Loving Man” floats along while the slow creek and whistle of “Love Henry” evokes a lost field recording. “Big Hands” goes full rocker, while the anthemic “The Future” speaks to the beautiful dream that won’t come to be, with it’s “Hey come on, wake up with me,” chorus.
Musically, this is her most crystalized album, leaning into sounds that blur the lines between folk, rock, country to become an absolute distillation of Americana. The production always keeps the sound warm, and the instrumentation sharp, but not overpowering.
The album closes with a perfect note of levity: “Enjoy Yourself” is filled with endearing giggles and guffaws that also serves as a fitting benediction to all those tales of heartbreak and loss that preceded it. Jolie Holland has traveled that long hard road, knowing both the living and the dead and she knows full well that it’s always later than we think, so lets enjoy ourselves.
You can find Jolie Holland’s albums on her site, but also check out her Patreon, where she drops a new song every Monday!