Jolie Holland's sophomore studio outing for Anti is a leap from her landmark Escondida. While that album traveled seamlessly from genre to genre without trying, Springtime Can Kill You moves at a slower, more labyrinthine pace toward an end that only Holland could conjure. There are many artists these days stepping deep into the rich tradition of American roots music, whether it's country, blues, folk, or gospel. To her credit, Holland is looking for something even more mercurial in her songwriting and cover performances: the American parlor -- or living room in the era before television when the radio was its centerpiece: it was the terrain where many voices, experiences, and stories from near or ghostly far came to life. Here,she articulates them in the present, often in the first person, as musical languages and as well-worn fables from life's margins. Holland's voice, always so original, sounds like it comes from some other bygone era, yet utters itself in contemporary terms; it is the anchor on which all this beautiful eventide music turns. It can be weary, tired, shy, and sly; it can be deeply divided and ambivalent; it can be sexually charged with the notion of conquest and discovery, and in its sultry, suggestive drawl it reveals even as it conceals; it's ready for the next lover's embrace or the challenge of finding it. Still at other times, it's full of grief, or intimate regret, or wide-eyed wonder and innocence at what reveals itself in the moment. It's a voice where there is no grain, only a rounded disclosure that carries within it all the moments the words were born from.
Whether she's writing original material or covering traditional tunes -- on this set she does a gorgeous reading of "Adieu False Heart" -- the effect is the same. It's intimate, like a secret told readily. And to further embolden herself, she's recorded portions of the disc in front of a small audience, and cut most of the music live from the floor. She engages country music, jazz, skeletal rock, swing, and '30s style pop in her original compositions as well as on a pair of stunning covers: poet and songwriter C.R. Avery's "Crazy Dreams" and Riley Puckett's classic "You're Never Satisfied." Other tracks offer stylistic or inspirational nods where they're due, such as on the country blues tune "Moonshiner," where she offers props to Freakwater and Memphis Minnie. Leisurely guitars, piano, horns, percussion, bass, and very subtle electronic flourishes illustrate Holland's sung words; their irony, their desire, their sadness and regret, and their slightly crazy, visionary illuminations. A listen to the opener, "Crush in the Ghetto," reveals a love song that looks at squalid surroundings as they've undergone a transformation through loopy joy and the skewed perception of the protagonist who is quietly, yet ecstatically wrecked by love: "It's a beautiful morning in the ghetto/Finer than the day before/The ants are crawling over my pants as if to say/they know where the honey is..." The heart of everyday life is illustrated in images of children crying on buses, high growing weeds that bear witness to "birds of paradise" in gentle singsong style that is illuminated by a shimmering B3, French horn, bells, guitars, and more. The title track is a slippery, rhythmically complex jazz tune. The drums swing, all cymbals and sheen, against the vocal. A human whistle sounds gaily from the margin. Holland refuses depression's darkness in her vocal as a four-note piano vamp in between refrain and verse, gives her fuel: "Don't you see we're all hurt the same way? So get out, get out of your house....If you don't go get what you need/Something's going to break on the inside..." A baritone horn plays an interlude in unison with that whistle to underscore this small but revelatory truth. "Stubborn Beast," is a skeletal songwriter's manifesto, set to a country waltz with Keith Carey's lap steel and a brushed drum kit lifting the guitars and vocals; it's a confessional shoulder shrug. "Ghostly Girl" is a country song from the other side of closing time, sung by the performer in the mirror in a cheap hotel. It's sad, wistful, and resigned. "Mexican Blue," another love song, closes the set. Holland's poetic lyric embraces everything in images -- "I saw you riding on your bike/In a corduroy jacket in the night/Past the hydrangeas blooming in the alley...When I lay beside you in the sleepless night/And when you dreamed my guardian spirits appeared..." -- a tiny glockenspiel enters, and underscores the wonder and gratitude in the verse. Electric guitars come razor-like and wind their way in; Holland's voice greets them mid-swell near the end: "I'll remember all the dreams and mysteries/You have born in your crystalline soul/That you sing from your golden throat/That you shine from your sparkling eyes/That you feel from the goddess in your thighs/You're like a saint's song to me..." And after its final words, it just ends. Springtime Can Kill You holds all of its stories, emotions and contradictions, like a multi-colored, roughly stitched quilt, made from well-worn blankets, shirts, and pants. It offers comfort, strength, and warmth, collecting all the stories that came and went, leaving something of themselves behind .