Most know Jolie Holland as a member of Vancouver's the Be Good Tanyas. Catalpa is her first album, but it wasn't recorded as such. It had been a demo recording passed around to fans until Neume reviewed it on the internet. The venerable upstart label Anti has given it the proper release it deserves. Holland is a native Texan, and it shows in her songwriting. Her images are rich, though stark and Gothic; they sound transposed. While her worldview is mostly modern, its articulation is rooted in a mythical, metonymic America that ceased to exist long before Greil Marcus ever thought about writing Invisible Republic. Catalpa is a place of scribbles and ciphers. Holland's songs are etched out of encounters and experiences that are mercurial, fleeting. As evidenced by "Alley Flowers," a love song, the present and the past intermingle, where street corners and figures like Jesus and Zora Neale Hurston are evoked as relational archetypes, effortlessly. An acoustic guitar played repetitively is colored by bells in the same way Mickey Newbury used rain, as a device to remember and to intimately tell the object that this story is whole, complete, and utterly true in this moment. A pulsing tom-tom hangs the tune in the hallmark of memory, haunted, hunted, rooted in the moment, though that moment may have come and gone decades ago. On "I Wanna Die," the spirit of the Carter Family is invoked with a beautifully sung two-part harmony, and a muted banjo played by Enzo Garcia. The song is dark, end of the road Appalachian country, and in the grain of her voice one can hear Holland as every tired, homeless woman who has ever wondered how she slid so far into despair. The sound of a singing bird ushers in the "Periphery Waltz." Accompanied by her haphazardly strummed acoustic guitar, she sings: "I left my home in the church, I left my home in the suburbs to wander/ I did it all for my dreams/And the star that I followed fell from the periphery/-the street lights slipping down my windshield fell like falling stars." This wanderlust is not romantic, it's necessary for survival, and in the fragility of her singing lies the courage of a lioness. There are covers on Catalpa too. "The Littlest Birds" was written as an addendum to a Syd Barrett song and he's listed as a co-writer. Holland sets William Butler Yeats' mighty poem "Wandering Angus" to music as well, and she does a mean cover of Hattie Hudson's "Black Hand Blues." The set closes with "Ghost Waltz," where Garcia's banjo and Holland's guitars entwine in a lilt worthy of Ralph Stanley. And, like Stanley, she sings with a forlorn authority that is gracious and tender: "You are so kind to be civilized/don't think that I haven't noticed/I've been too sad to think and too sick to care/but someday I'll meet you in the cold midnight air/I've been a ghost in houses I've loved/I've been a stranger to heaven above, but as for the world below, this is the one I know, my poor beloved home." And into the ether the tune disappears, leaving its ghost traces in the heart and mind of the listener.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek