About midway though her set at the Troubadour Monday night, Jolie Holland described herself as feeling as “small and wild as the footsteps of a rambling child,” which is a pretty good description of her show. Playing only the second show with her new band, and situated on the far left-hand side of the stage, Jolie’s performance was tentative, as if the former Be Good Tanyas singer and the musicians were still feeling their way around the songs and each other, but at times it coalesced into something very promising.
Holland, as a singer, has always been something special — her insinuatingly slurred vocals mixing parlor song, jazz and country in ways that sound simultaneously old-fashioned and contemporary. Her new album, “The Living and the Dead” (-Anti), produced with Shadzad Ismaily, pushes the sound toward the contemporary. It’s the best sounding of her career, although at times it feels as though some of her idiosyncrasies have been sanded away. At the Troubadour, Holland’s quirks were on display in all their melismatic glory.
Her three-piece band keeps things simple. Guitarist Sean Flinn has a wonderfully warm, scratchy tube-amp tone, which manifests itself best with slowed down rockabilly runs, while Rachel Blumberg on drums and Dave Depper on bass are a relaxed, unhurried rhythm section. When things get a little too busy, as they do on “Corrido por Buddy,” they can slip into folk-rock cliché, but their hauntingly sparse, stretched out version of the bluesy “Alley Flowers,” driven by Holland’s droning, boxy, home-made violin and Blumberg’s steady tom-tom pulse, sounded like Joan Baez backed by the Velvet Underground, while the encore of the traditional “Mad Tom of Bedlam” and the revamped dust bowl narrative of “Goodbye California” balanced the quirky and grounded.
For opener Herman Dune, a guitar and drum duo from Sweden by way of Paris, the quirks sometimes felt forced. The line-up, the old fashioned suits and the odd monikers (both guitarist David Ivar and drummer Neman add “Herman Dune” to their names) lead you to believe you’re going to see something seriously different. Ivar has a nice, conversational voice — a combination of Phil Ochs and the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle — and writes songs that approach their subjects from slightly askew angles: the love song “My Home is Nowhere Without You” opens up with musings on pictures and frames, but too much of their set hewed to typical contemporary folk rock.
Holland plays Gotham’s Highline Ballroom on Nov. 13.