JOLIE HOLLAND with HEATHER MORGAN at the Drake Hotel (1150 Queen West), Saturday (October 16), 9 pm. $15. 416-870-8000, www.rootmeansquare.ca. Rating: NNNNN
To a lot of people, Texas-born songstress Jolie Holland is best known as the Be Good Tanya who jumped ship.
While Holland may be a good fraction of the brains behind the Tanyas' biggest hit, The Littlest Birds (penned as a corollary to a Syd Barrett tune - Barrett and current Tanya Samantha Parton also receive writing credits), now, with two solo albums under her belt, including the remarkably assured new Escondida (Anti-) disc, it's becoming glaringly apparent that the nomadic belter is cut from completely different cloth than her Canuck former collaborators.
See, Holland's a babe steeped in the haunting, swampy stew of American gothic blues. In contrast to her peers' airy newgrass, she's got the lusty, smoky, Jesus-rising, gut-roiling soul of an old-time dame like Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday - a trash-talkin' woman who's been around the block a few too many times, left all riled up from the beating.
"I totally appreciate the poetry of the blues," drawls a groggy Holland over the phone from an L.A. hotel room, still reeling from last night's gig in a parking lot to celebrate a super-fan's art opening.
The thing about the blues, insists the singer/songwriter, who grew up playing in the mosquito-filled swampy forests on the border between Texas and Louisiana, is that they're written in Southern code.
"Last night I felt super-cerebral, so my boyfriend and I were playing Scrabble and listening to Memphis Minnie," she continues, yawning. "He's a California boy and I'm from Texas, and I kept saying, 'Wasn't that a great line?' and he had no clue what I was talking about. I was so stunned.
"Sure, the blues can have beautiful phrasing or harmonic ideas that are super fuckin' powerful. I mean, Muddy Waters is the root of rock 'n' roll. And gospel blues is way more rock 'n' roll than rock 'n' roll.
"But the words 'Adam in the garden, pickin' up leaves / Adam wouldn't answer, so God called out "Aaadaam! Aaadaam!" [singing] Cuz I'm ashamed ' It's powerful, crazy shit."
A conversation with Holland's kinda like a twisted verbal ping-pong game. She'll ramble about an ass-bad political theatre troupe's take on Mayakovsky one minute and throw in a casual reference to being a "nature mystic" (after the English Romantic poets - it's her way of "loving the world like a complete idiot") the next.
Oh yeah, and she's given to sudden outbursts of song. No surprise there, since Holland's played music pretty much her entire life. She claims she's been writing songs since age six. Little Missy, a lullaby-style track off Escondida, features a toy piano intro the 19-year-old says she wrote 22 years ago.
Although little details like that might make you think her new album is a grab bag of cutesy nouveau-trad gimmickry, Escondida is stunningly cohesive and beautifully arranged. It's a major leap from 2003's self-assembled and -produced debut, Catalpa, a loose collection of home demos Holland never intended to release. She claims she had the balls to put out the first record after listening to Will Oldham's aural scrapbook, Guarapero: Lost Blues 2, an odd combo of everything from random live recordings to Oldham reading poetry.
Escondida is darker and more refined, with lazy trumpet licks, spooky-good details like musical saw and creaky banjo picking, and an overall crackle of authenticity. From songs like Old-Fashioned Morphine (inspired by the time the singer swiped one of her ailing grandpa's painkillers) to the wobbly pseudo-suicide note Good Bye California, Holland's an ace hand at spinning both vocal and lyrical idioms that truly feel like they were unearthed from another era.
"The thing you must understand," Holland says dramatically, "is that it's all real. These are true confessions about real people, and real stories that I unfortunately lived.
"You know what really bugs me? I hear so-o-o many contemporary folk people, they get some banjos in the band or something, and then they sing about how they walked all day on the railroad tracks cuz they loved someone so much. But it doesn't sound like what it would feel like to walk all day on the train tracks. Those people don't feel the old stuff, so they're sticking this other veneer on top of it."