But as I grow older, it does become a little harder to keep up with anything “new,” and it does become harder to wrap my brain around newer styles and sounds. It takes some effort to keep my mind open to what could be good, but does not immediately sound like good music to me. Am I turning into one of those crotchety old men with a closed mind?
Sure, I loved that first album by Chvrches (2013), but then, it’s basically pretty much based on really good 80s synth pop (but, I was not so sure about the 2nd album, which does sound more contemporary.) It’s the same story with Twin Shadow; Forget is a fantastic album, and Confess is good, but not sure I’m on board yet with Eclipse.
So is it that I only like new music if it sounds somewhat like old music? I mean, I sort of even get Bruno Mars. He’s got an appeal, but there’s a lot of old soul in his music. I also like the idea of neo-soul. It sounds good when it comes on the radio, but, then, not sure I would buy any of the albums. Not sure if I’m that “on board” yet.
Maybe I should embrace my age and inability to grasp newer music. Or maybe not...
The artist I’m talking about is Julia Holter. Her music is a really amazing blend of atmospheric field recording (she really has an interest in how things, I mean all kinds of things, sound), modern or post modern composer (she studied composition at CalArts), and catchy pop (she has a knack for a good pop tune). Really, if you wanted to compare her to anyone, you could say she is a little Laurie Anderson (experimental Brave New World artistry), a little Kate Bush (she has a beautiful voice and can hit a high register of notes, while some songs, especially “Horns Surrounding Me” have a rhythm much like “Running Up That Hill”), maybe a little David Sylvian (not afraid to take music to places that are not immediately accessible to the listener) and even a little like St. Vincent (though I hate to say it as she is much less prideful than Vincent and really much more talented).
When I first head Julia, I was not sure what to think. I was intrigued by her unique direction; she seemed to play with music like a pottery artist would experiment with clay, and it really was refreshing to hear stuff that I didn’t expect. My soul felt joy by experiencing art/creativity for the sake of art/creativity. On first listen, you have no idea where she is going to take you. Yes, she might have a minute of twinkling symbols, and you start to get weary of the seeming monotony, but if you tune your mind into the possible beauty of a sound for the sake of it being sound, you get that this music is not just about melody, harmony, and rhythm, it’s also about the experience sounds. But then, seemingly out of the blue, she will hit you with an amazingly beautiful harmony and/or an amazingly beautiful and catchy melody that is nothing if not breathtaking. At first, you might think it is a little all over the place, and maybe too disjointed, but if you do listen to her records more than once, you will start to realize that there is some really clever organization going on. This is organized sound, and it is complex and simple all at the same time.
Once you settle into the album and experience its arc, you will begin to see that it is experimental, it is art, but not at the expense of pure entertainment and beauty. Julia said when she started she tried to write straight, normal pop songs, and was unsuccessful. So, she ended up throwing the clay back on the table, pressing it into a ball, and experimenting with less standard shapes. But, out of that, to contradict her self evaluation, came some amazing pop tunes. She really does have a knack or a good melody, and moments of pop beauty. On your third or fourth listen, you will hear that the music no longer seems haphazard. It’s really perfectly balanced.
I believe that the best album she has yet made, out of her 4 releases, is Loud City Songs from 2013. Though, that said, I do highly recommend Have You In My Wilderness (2015) and Ekstasis (2012). Where as Ekstasis sounds a little more like she’s still trying to find her footing (yet it’s full of brilliant moments and melodies), and Have You In My Wilderness is a little more standard and streamlined (she’s still experimenting, but she’s getting better and better at those pop tunes), Loud City Songs is a masterpiece of perfectly blended art, pop, classically and modernly inspired composer music, and fields recordings, and sounds for the sake of sounds. The result of all this blended together is incredibly pleasing, inspiring, beautiful, masterful, and lovely music. She gives you these sounds to evoke emotions, then she gives you some clashing harmonies that might seem difficult to swallow but are also beautiful in their own way, and then she will bring it together with a very catchy phrase, a perfectly placed harmony, or a lovely melody and the joy circuit in your brain lights up x10. Like Brian Eno once said, when something clashes, does not fit into your expectation, or seems unconventional, it sounds even better when the composer brings all those sounds back together into a perfect consonant harmony or a conventional yet unique melody.
On Loud City Songs, there are two versions of the same song, “Maxim’s.” I mention this because it’s a prefect place to see how a song can be presented in completely different ways. She chooses the arrangements and the presentation of the song so differently for, each version of the song, it almost sounds like completely different song each time.
Julia is one of the greatest musical talents I have heard in the past 10 years. I just hope I find the time, energy, and open-mindedness to go out there and find more new music to love. Because, there will always be good new music, but I will need to avoid a static musical brain and keep growing with the changing sounds of the time.
If you want to hear Julia Holter talk about her process of songwriting for the song “Horns Surrounding Me,” check out the dedicated episode on the Pod Cast “Song Exploder.”
Also, check out the below Youtube links to get an idea of why she is so amazing.