If you can’t tell by the accent (I couldn’t), Jolie Holland hails from Texas. She sings like she’s from one of Tom Waits’ stranger dreams, with a musical style of pronunciation that lands her somewhere between Jesca Hoop and Joanna Newsom (not bad company, that.) 2006’s Springtime Can Kill You was one of the most underrated albums of that year and now Holland is back with the beautiful and comparitively straightforward The Living and the Dead which features two awesome guitary guests: Matt Ward (aka M. Ward aka the Him in She & Him) and Mister Marc Fucking Ribot (the most underrated guitar-player in modern music, responsible for some of the awesomely weird licks in Tom Waits stuff and a player on the occasional Elvis Costello tune).
Of the Jolie Holland albums I’ve heard, The Living and the Dead strikes me as the most personal to date, with a fair amount of these songs discussing faces from her past, both lovers and friends. “Corrido Por Buddy” is a heartbreaking true story of a junkie-friend of Holland’s who was so wasted away she couldn’t recognize him until he said her name. Seeing her long lost pal in this condition, Holland (who excels in empathizing with all the characters in her songs, much like the afore-mentioned Mr. Waits) can only say, “I wish I’d been/ a better friend.”
Albums so laden with tunes about death and loss of love can get too heavy too quickly and tumble into an abyss of unlistenability. Holland never allows The Living and the Dead to go there because the album is shot through with a wry, weary humor, best exemplified by this line in “Sweet Loving Man”: “That dark horse you’re riding/ has to carry me too”. There are genuine bright spots as well, such as “Your Big Hands,” which features M. Ward playing what is basically the opening lick to “Honky Tonk Women.” “Your Big Hands” is “Honky Tonk Women,” if one of the women sang back to Mick Jagger, “I’ve got a bunch of stories/ I should’ve never told.” On her website, Holland says that “Your Big Hands” is a song that “Daniel Johnston made me feel brave enough to write,” and even calls the song “terribly naive.” Anyone familiar with Daniel Johnston’s work (and you should be) will get the comparison upon hearing “Your Big Hands.”
The instrumentation on The Living and the Dead runs the gamut from the country/folk of opener “Mexico City” to the classic rock of “Your Big Hands,” and Matt Ward gets credit for helping “shape the sound” of many of the tunes on this album, which leads me to this conclusion: if you’re hanging out with M. Ward these days, you’re probably pretty awesome. The dude’s fingers are in some pretty awesome pies this year, not least of which was his album with Zooey Deschanel under the name of She & Him.
The Living and the Dead quiets down considerably after “Your Big Hands,” but it doesn’t lose any of its steam. The masterpiece of the back half of the album is “Love Henry,” an old tune that, according to Bob Dylan (who should know), predates the Bible. It’s a song about a woman who murders her lover and is left singing to the parrot, who thinks it will be the next victim of her viciousness: “I won’t fly down/ I can’t fly down/ and light on your right knee/ a girl who’d murder her own true love/ would kill a little bird like me.” It’s a funny image for a murder scene, but Holland never plays it for laughs. In her hands, it’s a full-on tragedy, from the perspective of a talking bird who witnesses a murder.
Holland follows that slap-happy number with the heartbreaking (and heartbroken – Holland reports “really kind of crying and holding on to the piano” while writing it) “The Future,” with it sad refrain of “Hey, come on/ and wake up with me.” It’s a beautiful song for sure, but following an ancient murder-ballad, it makes for a depressing several minutes of your day. So what does Holland do to end the album?
She laughs her way through “Enjoy Yourself,” a very simple song that got stuck in my head after I saw Synecdoche, New York (It’s one of the most depressing and most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen) this weekend. It’s only one line: “Enjoy yourself/ It’s later than you think.” Whether that’s later in the night or later in life, I don’t really know, but if The Living and the Dead and Charlie Kaufman’s new opus (which honestly couldn’t have less in common with one another) could unify to convince me of one thing, it’s this: you have limited time. Make the most of it. Watch Charlie Kaufman movies and listen to Jolie Holland albums.