- by charles filtness Rating: Release Date: Label:
Tonight we are in the elegant surroundings of the Howard Assembly Rooms, a Victorian music hall that plays host to a wide variety of concert performers. Jazz, classical, electronica and world music all find their place here and it seems an entirely appropriate venue for Julia Holter to play.
She is touring her recently released new album Aviary, an epic and sprawling 90-minute piece. It has received much praise from critics and it’s easy to see why. It is a wonderfully immersive record that has its influences far and wide. But it is also challenging in places, whilst it has plenty to offer that is compelling, it also has contrasts that might not be immediately accessible. Certainly, this is all intended; she has created and is playing work that demonstrates her interests and influences. It would have been easy to make another crowd-pleasing follow up to her previous release ‘Have You In My Wilderness’. An almost perfectly crafted classically informed pop record. But where is the interest in repeating what has been done before?
As on record, the show tonight has its contrasts. She is joined on stage by five musicians who play violin, viola, double bass, drums, bagpipes, synth, trumpet, and flugelhorn. The set draws heavily from Aviary and there are also a handful of songs taken from its predecessor. My anticipation for this show was pretty high; I thought I was going to be utterly enraptured by it. At times I was, but not always. I heard one comment post gig that described it as ‘wonderfully off-kilter’, a pretty accurate description. There were times when the playing was deliberately off course, or the instruments were used to make a sound that was just edging away from comfort. Undoubtedly this demonstrates how accomplished they are as musicians. From these points, a song could soon fall into place after teetering on the edge of mild chaos and we would be enveloped in the delight of what we knew was being teased. Perhaps these moments are an alternative form to true improvisation. But as a listener, it wasn’t particularly successful for me. A friend, who is a fan, commented that he found himself thinking ‘I wish they’d just play’.
This is not intended as harsh criticism. It was a show I absolutely enjoyed. Her performance was captivating, the delivery of her lyrics always heartfelt. As the show developed the playing felt increasingly fluid and more enjoyable for it, I found myself relaxing into it. The simple combination of strings piano and vocal was the most effective for me but then I love to hear solos of those instruments. In a room like this, you can really appreciate the playing and beauty in the sound given the opportunity.