Jolie HollandOn albums with the Be Good Tanyas and her earliest solo studio recordings, Jolie Holland demonstrated a supple voice, a gift for evocative songwriting and, in time, an anything-goes approach to arrangement that gave her folk-blues an off-kilter sparkle.  On "Wine Dark Sea,” released in 2014, she surrounded herself with excellent, equally eccentric musicians who embraced her disorderly methodology.  Inciting their progressive rock and jazz performances she said were “improvisation, but all within a prescribed context,” Holland created a very special and often startling album.

Born in Houston, Holland started writing songs at age six and learned to play violin at school.  A friend gave her a guitar when she was 16, by which time a hard-knock life was already underway.  “Wine Dark Sea” drew from her familiarity with emotional turmoil.   Its music seemed to come from a distant, ghostly place where ancient blues and avant-garde noise-jazz collided like bitter, ferocious lovers, and distortion and dissonance gave visceral clarity to Holland’s stories, which she sang with a boozy slur.  Throughout the album, her voice discarded its natural  beauty to convey the troubled undercurrent of the narrative.   The pain of which she sang, and her sense of disconnection, seemed nothing like a device or affection.  Despite her ample wit, “Wine Dark Sea” landed as a cry.

On most tracks, Holland was supported by several guitarists, including Adam Brisbin, who had worked with Robert Wilson; Indigo Street, a member of 101 Crustaceans and a 21st-century version of the Plastic Ono Band; and Doug Wieselman, an admired player in New York's downtown scene who also contributed bass and reeds.  In the liner notes, Holland helped listeners distinguish their work.  In "Saint Dymphna," she wrote, Brisbin provided the "ranting, weeping guitar," Street the "solemnly witnessing guitar" and Wieselman the "grand crunchy guitar."  On "Dark Days," Geoffrey Muller contributed, in Holland’s words, "psychotic breakdown noises generated on the bass."

Her descriptions of the musicians’ contributions were spot on.  “Saint Dymphna” was a slowly evolving country ballad in which the guitars conspired to add eerie commentary to Holland’s dour tale.  Holland’s reading of Joe Tex’s R&B ballad “The Love You Save” featured at least four guitars including Sweet’s “sparse, delicate, concise” one. Echoey slide guitars and an insistent kick drum teed up “Dark Days,” a moaning blues in 12/8 time that was ripped apart by mechanized screams of torment.   “Palm Wine Drunkard” opened with Holland on piano, but, as she wrote in the notes, her violin and Brisbin’s guitar battled like Godzilla and Megalon – “You know who wins,” she winked – while Wieselman’s bass clarinet evoked thoughts of “sharks circling in the water.”

Holland's free-flowing lyrics matched the music with their zigzagging narratives and earthy directness.  In "Saint Dymphna," a song set in New Orleans, she mentioned Stephen Foster, Zora Neale Hurston and Robert Johnson – heroes who "died in the gutter."  “You know that the cold ground was my bed last night/…All that I had was a pocketful of prayers and unanswered dreams,” she sang.  At the bridge of the woozy piano ballad "First Sign of Spring," Holland sang:  "In a darkened bar, before I ever touched your face/I made the inevitable profession of love/But it didn't cross my lips and it echoed in my skull."

Holland toured aggressively behind “Wine Dark Sea.”  She had to, she said, to recoup its cost to record.  (How easily we can forget that great musicians, especially those who deliver ideal performances like the ones here, must be compensated for their work.)  It’s too soon to tell what effect the album will have on her career in the long haul.  For now, Jolie Holland stands very tall as an avant-garde folk-blues artist who made a daring album whose concept and execution delivered a powerful experience.