I’ll Have Mine on the Rocks
Jolie Holland’s voice is liquid on ice; Calexico’s newest goes down easy; and The Stills chill
Holland’s third album, Springtime Can Kill You , is, like her previous works, a quiet little gem that you want to polish and hold in your apron pocket for a while. It’s not car music, but porch music. Her ethereal voice peels off the recording with the slow ease of beads rolling down a sweating glass—you’ll want to pad your forehead with the comforting excess.
Thematically, Springtime covers a lot of freshly-cut ground, but the whole thing smells damply of summer. Holland recalls the heady eeriness of Billie Holliday on the sparsely accompanied “Ghostly Girl.” Then, with “Springtime Can Kill You,” she pleads, as if she were dead, for the living set to stop and smell the roses. Holland is most notably swampy and Southern on “Moonshiner,” when she intoxicatedly mourns a lover’s leaving. Then again, she turns into a mushy schoolgirl on “Crush in the Ghetto,” capturing those tingly heightened senses of one in new lust. Or is it love?
Then, in 2001, Calexico showed us a little restraint when they collaborated with Iron and Wine on In The Reins . Maybe they’re getting old and set in their ways, but maybe that isn’t a bad thing for Calexico, because the new, pure rock/folk found on Garden Ruin , their fifth album, is pitch-perfect and tight, reminiscent of an old Cream album in terms of musical precision. But Burns and Convertino showcase a slower, more calculated kind of virtuosity, a sweet slathering of chromatic sprezzatura. They make it sound easy; they make it velvet-smooth, too, crafting their simple and straight-forward compositions into something more interesting. It’s a masterwork, the product of two erratic musical geniuses who have finally managed to focus their power.
And for the diehard fans there’s still some of the old Calexico that we’re used to. “Nom De Plume,” a smoky, French number, sounds like something written by a jaded André Gabriel or a morose troupe of provincial troubadours , with a crisp, sparse gypsy guitar twang. We’re reminded of earlier collaborations, when Naïm Amor and Thomas Belhôm joined the group, briefly, to record Tête à Tête .
Confusing “The” bands, however, is a forgivable sin. Many of them sound like variations on the same vintage-hipster theme—razor-y guitars, fuzzy vocals, skinny jeans and mop-head haircuts. The Stills, which the band eventually identified itself as being, fit the mould. I moved on.
Fast-forward two years, when The Still’s new album Without Feathers lands on my desk. Upon listening, two possibilities present themselves: (1) desert heat can play tricks on one’s memory or (2) The Stills have grown personalities.
Without Feathers is the looser, happier cousin of its former self, something that’d hang prettier against the backdrop of Canada (where the band is from) than New York City. It gallops along with a smile rather than a grimace; it trades chain-smoking for daisy chains. Pianos plunk down alongside march-with-me drums and hopeful horns, blanketed by vocals that are equal parts wistful and quirky. Even heavy subject matter wears a halogen halo, tenderly celebrated with grand choruses and tastefully rocked-out guitars. It’s tempting to chock The Stills’ heartfelt reincarnation up to a happy-pill excuse, but one gets the distinct sense that this is what was been beneath the band’s threadbare t-shirts all along.