We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Like a kid sister uncertain of her own considerable charms, Jolie Holland has a habit of trying on her big sisters’ clothes. Early in her career, the Houston-born singer/songwriter tore out whole sections of the Great American Songbook, employing a goofily seductive twang that conjured folk deity Karen Dalton hopped up on too much cornpone. Sides such as “Amen” and “Crush in the Ghetto”—the former a tent-revival altar call, the latter a Southern-fried mash note—are more Hee Haw than Grand Ole Opry, yet her wide-eyed delivery revealed a zealous, overprotective affection. Precious? You bet—in fact, it often bordered on performance art. But Holland’s new album, The Living and the Dead, will cause longtime fans to reconfigure their take on her entire just-so career and make newcomers wonder why they’re only hearing of her now. From the disc’s opening number, the Byrdsian “Mexico City,” to the giggling, set-closing cover of the ’40s standard “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think),” Holland is all swaggering self-confidence and soulful rock strut. She hasn’t fully recovered from influencitis, but this time she evokes warm-blooded contemporaries, not Smithsonian Folkways dissertation fodder. Lucinda Williams animates Holland’s R-rated delivery on “Sweet Loving Man,” a gospel-inflected weeper about, ahem, “drifting South” that packs a huge, hands-in-the-air soul hook. She channels Chan Marshall for the beautifully awkward (and gorgeously tube-amped) “You Painted Yourself In.” And throughout The Living and the Dead, Tom Waits looms large, with Holland availing herself of Waits’ gutter-poet eye for voyeuristic detail and his preference for ramshackle pickup bands that register as shit-hot—even with amps cranked up only to four or so, as they usually are here. (Her band for the album includes Marc Ribot, guitarist on Waits’ classic Rain Dogs.) Waits, in fact, is an on-the-record advocate for Holland, who’s morphed over time into a fellow-traveling specialist in what rock prof Greil Marcus calls “old weird America.” Which comes as no surprise: Studiously impressive from the get-go, Holland is now thoroughly hot-blooded, too.