The sound conjures up images of dusty Delta roads and cotton fields, Alan Lomax out in front of a tarpaper shack with a field microphone and a primitive tape recorder capturing for posterity the songs of an obscure blues master. Then the voice sings, “Some people say you got a psychedelic presense/Shinin in the park with a bioluminescense.” Wait a minute. Rewind. What in the world is this?
What it is is Jolie Holland, and the album is Catalpa, a series of homemade demos that mix mountain music, the roughest and most ragtag of early Delta blues, and a songwriting talent of poetic grace. Holland, co-founder of the Canadian female folk ensemble The Be Good Tanyas, recorded these songs for her own amusement and edification, never intending them for public consumption. But the recording took on a life of its own, as friends passed it along to other friends. Eventually it was released on Jolie’s website and at her shows; now it’s being released for the first time for wider distribution.
There are echoes of America’s musical roots everywhere on this CD—the rough bark and bite of Son House and Charlie Patton blues tunes, the plaintive blue yodel of Jimmie Rodgers, the ragged but right mountain harmonies of Mother Maebelle Carter and the Carter Family, even the jazz slurs of Billie Holiday. Holland’s voice is a remarkably supple instrument; and her phrasing and the way she sidles up to notes is nearly miraculous. On “Roll My Blues” and “Black Hand Blues” she is an unadulterated Delta blueswoman, while on tunes such as “I Wanna Die” and “Alley Flowers” she channels the rough vocal timbre of early bluegrass stalwarts such as Hazel Dickens and Wilma Lee Cooper. As an added bonus, when you can hear the words, they sound like the product of a very thoughtful, poetic young woman, and I look forward to hearing Jolie’s songs when they’ve been properly recorded.
And therein lies the caveat. To be sure, these demos sound like demos. The sound quality is atrocious throughout, and there is an informality that occasionally borders on rank amateurism. But that’s also part of the charm of Catalpa; it sounds about as contrived as a picking session out on the front porch because that’s largely what it is.
You want the slick version of this stuff? Try Bonnie Raitt or Alison Krauss. But for those willing to look past the horrendous sound quality, the false starts, the throat clearing, the bum notes, and the occasional approximations of pitch, Jolie Holland is the mother (Maebelle) lode. Catalpa is flawed like a diamond is flawed, and it shines with a one-of-a-kind brilliance.