Julia Holter
Playing straight: Julia Holter. Photograph credit: Flickr

Julia Holter’s bracing and intelligent compositions have met with great critical acclaim ever since her debut Tragedy in 2011. However, she turned out to be one the big flavours of 2015 following her fourth studio release Have You In My Wilderness, which deviated from her more avant-garde earlier albums with its mix of vaudevillian pop and literary ballads.

Holter’s vocals are every bit as striking in the flesh as they are on record, effortlessly clear and cool as she enunciates the first few words of set opener ‘City Appearing’.

There’s always been a sense of perfectionism in Holter’s music that presents each track as a finished whole. This translates to the live show as she plays each song exceptionally straight, swerving away from too much embellishment as she trips through ‘Silhouette’ and ‘Horns Surrounding Me’.

Surprisingly, ‘Feel You’, one of the stand-out pop tracks from Wilderness, is played in muted tones, flattened down and shuffled in between ‘Lucette’ and ‘Into The Green Wild’. But if Wilderness taught us anything it was that Holter is not one to let herself be pigeon-holed by expectations.

Between songs the LA-native offers up a bit of context, expanding on the ideas that shaped the tracks or the time and place of their inception. ‘Silhouette’, we learn, was the last track she wrote for Wilderness, ‘Goddess Eyes’ was written when she was “a teenager, basically”.

“This song is about Betsy above the building,” she says, eliciting hearty chuckles from the audience until they are all struck dumb by the frosty opening bars of ‘Betsy On The Roof’.

However, in her introduction to ‘Lucette Stranded On The Island’, a track built around an unfortunate minor character in a short story by Colette, Holter informs the crowd she’s growing tired of talking about this particular song. “Maybe it’s just about going to the store,” she deadpans in her California drawl. “Maybe it’s a metaphor.”

Pre-encore closer ‘Vasquez’ is the evening’s certified show-stealer. “This one’s about Tiburcia Vasquez who was on the loose back in the 19th century,” offers Holter as a primer. “I was there. I saw it happen with my own eyes.”

The jostling percussion and slow-burning vocal lines, imbued with the electrified energy of live performance, dazzle their way into a dramatic clamour of scrambled jazz.

Finishing with a two-song encore of the Dionne Warwick/Burt Bacharach hit, ‘Don’t Make Me Over’, and the harpsichord-heavy ‘Sea Calls Me Home’, it’s an apt conclusion to what has been a relaxed and rewarding display of Holter’s motley talents.

Julia Holter played at Oval Space on 15 February 2016.

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