There's death in the undergrowth, black and loamy. It crouches beneath broad green leaves like puddles of shadow, sucking at wet roots and bare feet, insulating the banks of the Cumberland and the Monongahela with the muffled, hollow hush of decay. The Appalachians ache with it. So does Jolie Holland.
Holland is a restless Bay Area songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who briefly served in the Be Good Tanyas, a Vancouver outfit that has seared its own rustic brand on the flank of alt-country. After leaving the group just before its first release in 2001, she resumed her own lonesome musical wandering. It eventually led to this: Catalpa, a twelve-cut homespun demo recording of spontaneous composition and loose improv made by Holland and a few of her friends. The album's "Is this thing on?" aesthetic is apparent in all the coughs and flat strings and dropped objects (credited on the disc as "percussion") that buzz among the songs like June bugs against a tattered screen door. This slapdash ambience, though, is all serendipity; the recordings were never meant for an audience beyond Holland's cats and shower curtains. But upon being picked up by Epitaph Records subsidiary Anti- (also home to Tom Waits, who, coincidentally, is a huge Jolie Holland fan), Catalpa was rushed for immediate release. It's not hard to hear why: Most people's quarter-million-dollar records don't sound half as good as Holland's offhand work, teeming with the static of half-drunk strumming and the background flutter of cigarette ashes falling to the carpet.
The subject matter of her songs is just as mystically prosaic as her recording process: Little birds make recurring appearances throughout the album, as do trees, flowers, demons, waltzes and, naturally, death. "I Wanna Die" is the centerpiece of Catalpa, an almost hymnal country-folk threnody wherein Holland confesses in a cracked bell of a voice, "I wanna die/I wanna die/Down south Louisiana/In a gray evening sky/I wanna die/I don't care how/I'm getting out." But amid the grim, traditional air, songs like "Alley Flowers" betray the influence of some big-city book learnin': "Some people say you got a psychedelic presence/Shining in the park with a bioluminescence." Although certainly inspired by contemporary fare like that proffered by Will Oldham and Cat Power, Holland pumps the antediluvian blood of Leadbelly and Billie Holiday through her own tissue like corn mash through a charcoal filter. Her body's the still; the music is moonshine. And despite the fact that her native Texas is the farthest east she's ever called home, Holland's spirit sounds like it's been napping in the hills and dirt and silt of Appalachia for ages.
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