CD Review: Julia Holter’s “Loud City Song” — Stark Urban Beauty

The third and latest LP from indie singer-songwriter and composer Julia Holter proffers a vision of urban ecstasy.

Loud City Song by Julia Holter. Domino. The album can be streamed at NPR.


The cover art for "Loud City Song"

The cover art for “Loud City Song”

Loud City Song, the third and latest LP from indie singer-songwriter and composer Julia Holter is a nocturnal vision of urban ecstasy, the specific source of inspiration being Holter’s native Los Angeles.

The album’s noir-inspired cover art is a vivid shot of a dimly lit LA street, the shapes of the buildings amorphous, their details fuzzy, largely obscured by the night. The disc’s nine tracks are an attempt to transform that image’s simultaneously nocturnal and metropolitan esthetic into music.

Loud City Song opens with “World,” a song that artfully balances the devastating starkness of its arrangements with Holter’s lovely voice, which is mixed front-and-center. In fact, aside from intermittent orchestral flourishes that emerge toward the end of the track, it is a nearly a cappella affair. Holter’s lonely vocals tell a profound and evocative account of urban life through a series of vignettes that range from the light-heartedly absurd to the hauntingly sober.

The multi-phased “Maxim’s I” follows. The piece opens with a wash of grainy feedback that offers an effective contrast to Holter’s refined inflection and deliberate organ playing. Orchestral arrangements emerge halfway through, lending the track a lush, post-rock quality that brilliantly offsets the dissonance of the grainy feedback, resulting in a composition that is simultaneously gritty and transcendent.

“Horns Surrounding Me” is the LP’s triumphant highlight. The song’s prominent brass arrangement takes on an epic power—particularly in the way it plays against the drum kit and Holter’s blaring synth. Moreover, Holter’s vocal performance here is a tour de force. Her powerful inflection even smacks a bit of Nico, at times.

The exultant tone set by “Horns Surrounding Me” continues with the lush single “In the Green Wild.” The track’s initial sly upright bass and exotic, quasi-tribal percussion gives way to a soaring, string-kissed second movement that manages to be simultaneously explosive and ethereal. Holter’s singing and songwriting is also delightfully whimsical throughout, bringing some much-appreciated bucolic kick to the disc’s concentration on big city life.

Things mellow to the point of somberness with the next number, “Hello Stranger.” The spacious piece features an up-front vocal performance from Holter that matches the forlorn beauty of “World”’s. Subdued strings underlie the track and elegantly swell as it progresses. At the end, a gleaming synth texture nicely pulls the composition together.

Julia Holter

Singer/Songwriter Julia Holter — a celebrator of urban ecstasy

The formless “Maxim’s II” follows. Easily serving up the most inaccessible moments on the disc, the track features intermittent interludes of avant-garde near-silence interspersed with blaring brass arrangements and an uncharacteristically menacing vocal performance from Holter. It closes on a decidedly noisy industrial note, with squealing saxophone, screeching strings, clanking percussion, and a buzzsaw synth texture.

The album calms down with “He’s Running Through My Eyes,” a graceful piano ballad. It’s a bit short-winded, lasting just over two minutes, but it supplies some welcome soft lyricism after the cacophony of “Maxim’s II.”

Of all the tracks, “This Is a True Heart” captures the bustling essence of city life best. Holter’s utterly giddy vocal melody leads a new wave-ish gathering of pizzicato bass, dazzling synth, and smooth alto sax. Later, Holter even samples the sound of a car speeding off—complete with tire squeal.

The LP closes with “City Appearing,” the most ambitious piece on the record, and not merely because it is the longest (at an ample seven minutes) but also because of the reach of its compositional complexity. The song reprises the themes of “World,” opening in a similarly spartan way, but Holter opts to move beyond the dreary—for the last few minutes of the tune the jazzy instrumentation coalesces into something decidedly celebratory. Holter imagines a magnificent city appearing before her; it is a breathtaking sequence in which Loud City Song completes its evocation of an urban skyline. Then it disappears into the night.

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