At one point during Jolie Holland’s Troubadour appearance, a group of people standing at the bar could be heard discussing the show. “It’s rootsy,” one asserted. “More like folk-rock,” another responded. “Yeah, but it swings,” a third piped in. “She’s a blues singer,” the fourth concluded. They were all talking about the same song, and they were all right.
“Escondida,” the Northern California-based Holland’s new album (Anti), is one of those rare recordings that creates its own unique sonic world, simultaneously ancient and absolutely contemporary, held together by Holland’s astounding voice. It’s like discovering a crystal radio attached to a satellite dish — the tuning’s a little imprecise and the stations bleed into each other, so Memphis Minnie drawls over a Velvet Underground track or Billie Holiday takes the vocal on “Me and Bobby McGee.” A distinct vein of sadness runs through the album, as does a healthy sense of perversity — “Old Fashion Morphine” adapts the spiritual into an ambiguous meditation on the connection between art and opiates.
At the Troubadour, Holland added to the album’s ineffably spooky and cool vibe. The songs rattle around like a vintage Rambler in need of an oil change, with Roger Riedlbauer’s muted guitar and Dave Mihaly’s brushed drums framing Holland’s smudged, eccentrically phrased alto vocals and her violin playing, which can slide from Appalachia to avant-garde in the same solo. (She’s also a pretty mean whistler.)
It was Riedlbauer’s maiden perf with Holland, and that may have added to the evening’s spontaneous feel. This sense that the songs were being played for the first time gave tunes such as “Goodbye California” and “Littlest Birds” an added urgency.
Holland topped a smartly booked triple bill, with Willard Grant’s rumbling baritone and the lovely three-part harmonies of the Haden Triplets (the daughters of bassist Charlie Haden are a charming, So Cal variation of the Roches) crafting unique, mix-n-match folk styles.
Holland plays Joe’s Pub at New York’s Public Theater on June 3.