On her three previous offerings, Jolie Holland mined the deep well of Americana, from classic pre-war blues and country sources to the feel of speakeasy-era popular and parlor songs through originals that echoed all of the above while being caught in the whirlwind restlessness of millennium-edge America. Her songs and instrumentation were like lovers; they represented the iconic places they held in her life as an artist. The Living and the Dead offers a different side of Holland. Where her own sometimes loose and ranging compositions were influenced by those early styles to the point of poetic obsession, the songs here reflect a tighter, more focused musical view while ratcheting up their emotional intensity. Perhaps this is because parts of it were recorded in various cities such as Portland and Brooklyn, with guests who include Marc Ribot, M. Ward, Colin Stetson, Kenny Wollesen, and Jim White; they play alongside her regular collaborators such as engineer, multi-instrumentalist, and co-producer Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Rachel Blumberg. Production aside, it's the songs that reflect the greatest change here, beginning with the opener "Mexico City," where beat generation heroes Jack Kerouac, wife Edie Parker, and Joan Vollmer (the wife of William S. Burroughs whom he accidentally shot and killed in the infamous "William Tell" incident) lay across the protagonist's bed as she strums through a jangly rock tune and asks: "What's that black smoke rising, Jack? Is the world on fire? What's that distant singing? Is it a heavenly choir of the living and the dead?" "Corrido por Buddy" is a gentle yet harrowing memorial narrative about a man she barely knew who went from "beautiful young man on the streets of Austin," to "...a ghost-faced junkie on the streets of New Orleans..." Beginning with strummed electric guitars, drums kick up the emotional verve in the tune though Holland's voice remains relaxed in its drawling delivery. But she implicates herself as culpable too, and wishes she'd not been so shy with this man who treated her with kindness and compassion in her own needy circumstances. She asks with devastating honesty: "What if they only gave you love when you lied? Everything minus one is everything..." The songs could end right here, but Holland is unflinching as the album tenses up even more with "Palmyra," a meditation on the frailty of human relationships and failings of love. Ribot's guitar work here is biting, warm, and razor-wire sharp, contrasting itself with Holland's steely yet world-weary voice. All of these songs reflect the shortcomings of human beings dealing with one another in an honest, intimate, dependable way, and how it's sometimes impossible to endure -- as one is both victim and perpetrator. There are two covers on this set also: the eerie, stripped, disembodied reading of the traditional "Love Henry," (which wouldn't seem out of place on a Tom Waits record), and the set-ending standard within a standard, "Enjoy Yourself," a late-night back porch reading. But even these songs are haunted by something almost dreadful on Holland's shoulder, making her look back at the road in sorrow, and at the present with the kind of resignation and acceptance that true regret brings. Though her Americana roots still shine through in patches, for The Living and the Dead they are stretched to the breaking point. This is a spooky yet beautiful offering by one of our best musical poets; a true outsider trying to come in from the cold.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek