Album Review: Julia Holter – Loud City Songs

Loosely based on ‘Gigi’, both a 1944 novella and a musical revolving around a plot where “A Parisian girl is raised to be a kept woman but dreams of love and marriage”, ‘Loud City Songs’ is a colourful, inviting, eerie …
By Liam Harrison

Loosely based on ‘Gigi’, both a 1944 novella and a musical revolving around a plot where “A Parisian girl is raised to be a kept woman but dreams of love and marriage”, ‘Loud City Songs’ is a colourful, inviting, eerie symphony of battered strings and contraptions of nuanced style that attempt to transpose nostalgic European conurbation into sound. It is remarkably successful in these respects.

Sweeping and grandiose, Holter’s follow up to 2012’s excellent ‘Ekstatis’ is a conundrum; a gripping mixture of beautifully serene, stationary balladry and raw, kinetic bustle, much like can be imagined in a stereotypical 1920’s Western European landscape. Despite being only 28, Holter’s grip on a reasonably antiquated dialogue like ‘Gigi’ is fantastic, and sincere. From the fantastically evocative ‘Maxim’s I’ to the pounding ‘In The Green Wild’, her ambition to translate it into musical format is incredibly successful. Her expansion into less isolated recording territory (Holter has dropped sticking to her bedroom for recording) has dramatically expanded the musical palette. The album’s commitment to the original feel of the piece is wavering in the best possible way. There is a feeling of being unrestricted, with an insatiable urge to experiment being noticeable on tracks such as ‘Hello Stranger’ and ‘Maxim’s II’.

There is a feeling of being unrestricted, with an insatiable urge to experiment being noticeable

In the cover of the Barbara Lewis classic, (‘Hello Stranger’) Holter does a spectacular job of creating a fresh and invigorating spin, making it one of the mainstays of the album’s material. As spindling as it is collected, an eerie mix of organic orchestration and synthetic technology surrounds Holter’s soulful vocal turn in a gorgeous, transcendent climax. The results are breathtaking.

Otherwise, on tracks such as ‘Maxim’s II’, jazz instrumentation such as frequent double bass and pounding horn sections surround her nimble, whispered chanting about the public, like when she murmurs “when they eat a piece of cheese before they talk, when they’re loud enough we can hear their words, by name we are inquisitorial birds”. There’s a passion and a vigour beneath ‘Loud City Songs’, at its most violent on ‘Maxim’s II’. It underpins the tracks, as the beautiful ballad, ‘He’s Running Through My Eyes’ delineates. Her gentle vocals, underpinned by little more than a piano, are so poignant they can affect the listener on a personal level, with such simple phrasing and vocal-less utterances doing more to convey the songs redeeming emotive qualities than most singers’ entire vocabulary. With the songs where meanings are more clarified, it remains uncertain who exactly is doing the narrating, whether it be Holter or Gigi. Nonetheless, the breezy ‘This Is A True Heart’ with it’s lamenting “This is a true heart, listen harder. These are true words, speak hard”. Holter’s sincere demands do much to create a fully functional personality; trying to make sense of a large city and a large world, much like we can all say we do.
Holter’s sincere demands do much to create a fully functional personality; trying to make sense of a large city and a large world, much like we can all say we do.
Meanwhile, on the bracing, beautifully caustic ‘World’, Holter’s whisper that “Everyday my eyes grow older, I grow a bit closer to you”, describes those experiences where love, lust, attachment, whether it be to a place, a person, or a feeling, can sneak up on us until we have to admit their presence.

‘Loud City Songs’ is a world of its own. Its presence is stationery, its impression on the listener a lasting one, but it remains profoundly transcendent. With so much passion packed into its roster of songs, this effort seems attached to city life and all its splendour and beauty. For those of you that have experienced such a thing, ‘Loud City Songs’ draws attention to the bustle in all of its modest manner, questioning it and revamping it into something that we can think about. It’s an endeavour that is successful and touching, well structured to the point of obsession, atmospheric to the point of being other-worldly, and timeless in its approach towards life-affirming ambition. Whether it be the mumbling of a violin piece, the barking of a horn section or the delicate whispering of Holter’s piano or vocals, ‘Loud City Songs’ speaks wonders of an old story, or a story that you yourself, as others, have found yourself forming.