Julia Holter at Other Music

Last night, before heading over to Other Music for Julia Holter’s in-store performance, I stopped by In Living Stereo and had a nice conversation with sales manager Steve Cohen. I got to hear a few of Steve’s own recordings through a system made of Dynaudio loudspeakers and Rega electronics, including the new, slick-looking Apollo CD player ($1095). Though the recordings were made using simple keyboards and sent straight to 4-track, the richness of the music and balance of the system far overshadowed any sonic limitations. It sounded great.

I was also pleased to see that In Living Stereo now carries Wharfedale’s affordable overachiever, the Diamond 10.1 loudspeaker ($350/pair), and its considerably bigger brother, the 10.2. At just $100/pair more than the 10.1, the 10.2 at least looks like it can provide a much bigger, more solid and controlled sound.

Julia Holter hit my radar in November 2011, while I was preparing my year-end list of favorite recordings. It was strange that I hadn’t even heard of her or her acclaimed album, Tragedy: I mean, even when I haven’t actually heard a record, I’m usually aware of its existence or that of the artist. But, with Holter, I was completely blindsided. I probably first read her name on Lar’s Gotrich’s list of “Best Outer Sounds Albums of 2011.” Writing for NPR, he said:

Those attuned to the modern Gothic atmospheres of Zola Jesus and Grouper will no doubt be drawn to Holter, but she comes more from the Meredith Monk spectrum of sonically-challenging ladies. Bits of musique-concrète, noise, drone, dreamy '80s 4AD medieval-pop and avant-classical are the touchstones for an album centered around Euripides' Hippolytus. But as academic as that all sounds, Tragedy pulls me into its emotional world as well, just as the curtain falls and the voices trail away at the finale.

How had I missed this?

I started seeing Julia Holter’s name everywhere, like a word that becomes magically ubiquitous as soon as it’s been learned. Mostly, the praise for Tragedy came from other musicians, and, when it did, it came gushing. The word “perfect” was used more than once. And then I heard “Marienbad,” the first single from Ekstasis, Holter’s new album, officially released today by RVNG, INTL.

That was it: I was hooked.

Like Joanna Newsom and Julianna Barwick, Holter had created her own magical world, combining the lyrical melodies of the former with the adventurous harmonies of the latter, while adding measures of pop and...something else. I listened to “Marienbad” over and over again, for hours, all the while wondering how I had missed Tragedy.

I scribbled Holter’s name on a yellow Post-it note, added the word “Ekstasis,” and stuck the note to my desk, where it stayed until this morning. I now own the album. I’m looking forward to playing it on my Rega P3-24. I suspect that hearing it at home will be more involving than was watching it performed live.

Other Music is a wonderful record shop, but a difficult, compromised venue. (Despite this fact, I am grateful to Other Music for providing free events like this, and I will certainly return for the next.) The sound of the room is fine, blessed with high ceilings and supported by the most excellent room treatments imaginable: loads of LPs. But it’s small, and it very quickly becomes hot and crowded. Though I was no more than 15 feet away from Holter, I could not see her at all. (I stand over six feet tall in my boots.) It wasn’t until a few less dedicated members of the audience decided to leave that I realized Holter was accompanied by a live drummer and cellist. If that seems surprising, know that neither performed with much gusto or charisma—it sounded as though the material was relatively new to them. There was little energy coming from the band, less coming from the crowd. And did I mention it was hot?

Performed live, under less than ideal circumstances, the seams in Holter’s inventive music became all too apparent. Nevertheless, her melodies floated through my mind long after the performance had ended. Holter’s songs hold enormous potential, and my mind heard perfection even when mistakes were painfully audible.

I spoke to Holter after the show. Unfortunately, she didn’t have any copies of Tragedy for sale, but she says the record will soon be reissued, and, when it is, “it’s going to be big.”

I believe it.