BEST OF 2013: 9. Julia Holter – Loud City Song

Having crafted two remarkable records between the four walls of her house, ‘Loud City Song’ marks the studio debut for one of the most spellbinding talents making music today. While those early releases had their roots in classical literature, here  Julia Holter finds her inspiration closer to home and more modern times. Partly borne of a 1958 film adaptation of French novella ‘Gigi’, prompting thoughts of the voyeuristic nature of her native land of Los Angeles, ‘Loud City Song’ is an album that works hard to conjure a world and capture an audience. All three of Holter’s releases thus far are absolutely essential, occupying a world that sounds nothing like ours. ‘Ekstasis’ had caused a ripple when imported copies on RVNG popped up in Spring 2012 and the momentum leapt sizeably once Domino gave it a full UK release at the end of last year. Rise in Bristol put me onto it, when those original US pressings crept over and I was intrigued, if not immediately in love. It took me quite a while to fall in line with its wilfully unconventional sonic space, but once it had clicked I was obsessed with it for several weeks. This happened around Christmas last year and led to me picking up a reissue of her debut, ‘Tragedy’, an even more singular creation. It never quite scales the heights of her other work, but it is well worth seeking out. However, despite having got the bug and been convinced of the charms of ‘Ekstasis’, I wasn’t quite prepared for the fully realised beauty of ‘Loud City Song’.

The sense of conjuring a sense of the world through sound is prevalent across the record, especially on ‘Horns Surrounding Me’, which is driven by the looped sound of a slightly distorted parp, conveying the creeping oppression of the bustle at a city’s heart. Synths go off like fireworks, field recordings from a busy street drift in and out and the intensity ebbs and flows like rush hour traffic. It is a song unlike anything else on the record and unlike anything else released this year. Listen on headphones and it almost becomes too much. The relentless rhythm is luxuriously claustrophobic, a bit like the sensation of looking over the edge of a tall building – you know how it’s going to feel, and it’s not especially nice, but you do it anyway. It is a fascinating piece of music and one which makes you wonder how an artist ever conjures such a concept in the first place. It’s possible to have a crack at unpicking these phenomenal layers, but how do they coalesce in the first place? ‘Loud City Song’ is full of moments that make you want to listen again, more closely, more keenly, to hear exactly what’s happening.

‘Hello Stranger’ is one of the few songs to truly deserve the tag ‘ethereal’ that is so casually bandied about in record reviews. It drifts in, entirely out of time and place, and seems to hover overhead for its entire six minute duration. It is out of step with the cacophonous hum of the rest of the album and is all-encompassing, summoning you towards the light with open arms.  It is the warmest of baths, the biggest of hugs, the greatest of headphone moments. It is the purest of Holter’s vocals across the record and an interesting moment of serenity at its core.

Elsewhere, her voice often functions as an additional instrument, muffled and echoed or mellifluous and protracted. The amorphous sweeps of sound at times call to mind the beautiful headspace of Talk Talk’s ‘Spirit Of Eden’, with individual songs gradually seeming less important than the mood as a whole. However, the tone seems far less resigned than that record, even if its unshakeable vision can draw parallels. ‘Maxim’s 2’, with its curiously affected, Bjork-like delivery, rises to a quite staggeringly discordant crescendo. Several moments call to mind the glacial tinkering of Bjork’s finer moments and fans of ‘Vespertine’ – frankly, who isn’t? – will find a new best friend right here. The rather sober ‘He’s Running Through My Eyes’ serenely fills the massive gap left by the conclusion of ‘Maxim’s 2’.

‘This Is A True Heart’ sashays around, with an almost conventional indie-pop saxophone break that would make Jens Lekman melt, before ‘City Appearing’ appears to draw proceedings to a close in relatively sedate fashion, only for another sonic rumble to erupt several minutes from time. This an album that toys with the listener, plays with the senses and invades the heart. Quite where Julia Holter is going is anybody’s guess, but the journey is a true delight.

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