Tagging Jolie Holland’s latest album, The Living and the Dead, as alt-county is almost a passive aggressive act. To be perfectly accurate, this is country music through and through, but given the state of what is popularly considered to be modern country music, it just doesn’t seem right to lump Jolie Holland into that peer group. So like other like-minded purveyors of searching, interesting country music (like Neko Case, Lucinda Williams, Drive-By Truckers, etc.), Holland is most at home under the modern definition of alt-country. As such, The Living and the Dead is just about your best bet for affecting, sympathetic storytelling against a generous and idyllic melodic background.
Placing Jolie Holland in the same company as Lucinda Williams serves as an easy segue into a discussion of Holland’s voice. For a woman in her early thirties, Holland’s sings with the weathered assuredness of a lifelong veteran. Her tales of promising lives turned tragic (the best example of which, “Corrida Por Buddy,” is particularly heartbreaking) are made all the more affecting for the obvious sincerity with which she sings without over emoting. When she’s feeling a little more rambunctious, as on “Your Big Hands,” which owes a great deal of it’s swagger and boogie to the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman, she doesn’t need to oversell her allure. Her calm confidence and raspy twang are more than enough to do the trick. Even the added bonus of having an impressive stable of established musicians (M. Ward, Jim White) on hand to add a shade or two doesn’t distract from Holland’s easy control of the listener’s focus. Hell, I’ve listened to the album a dozen times and I still have no idea what exactly Ward nor White do on this album, with the exception of assimilating naturally and unnoticed into the mix.
Considering The Living and the Dead’s consistency in tone, it’s surprising what songs and genres Holland’s melodies will call to mind. Lucinda Williams is an obvious point of reference, particularly on opener, “Mexico City,” and there’s the aforementioned “Your Big Hands” possibly unintentional Stones’ homage. Most interestingly, “Fox In It’s Hole” effortlessly finds a meeting ground between Tricky and Tom Waits. The chorus lifts the melody of Tricky’s “Aftermath,” and superimposes it over the clattery atmospherics of Waits’ “Clap Hands.” Perhaps Holland made this connection on purpose, and perhaps not, but whatever her intention, the results are at once frightening and hypnotic.
But regardless of how far from down home Americana Holland may occasionally stray, which is rarely very far at all, The Living and the Dead always finds itself returning to more pastoral joys. Whenever the record threatens to become too gloomy, Holland offers up a more unfettered, easy tune to cleanse the listener’s palate. The unrelenting, albeit lovely, murkiness of “Love Henry” and “The Future” is tempered with the album’s closing trifle, “Enjoy Yourself,” which contains no more than seven words repeated over the course of it’s two plus minutes. The sentiment, “Enjoy yourself/it’s later than you think,” might seem out of place on an album that largely chronicles the more dismal elements of human interaction, but there’s a faint optimistic streak running through The Living and the Dead. Unlike the usual sources of complication-free optimism (your Jack Johnsons and Jimmy Buffetts), Holland makes you work for it, and the rewards are all the more potent for the effort.