Published Jul 18, 2013Julia Holter and her four-piece band stand motionless, gazing profoundly at each other's instruments. It is unclear whether they're awaiting some imperceptible cue, experiencing invisible difficulties, or simply screwing with us. It's not inconceivable that they're covering "4'33," John Cage being a stated influence on Holter. Some 30 seconds later, though, something cracks; band and audience break into respectful laughter. "We're just gonna stand here," Holter grins. "Does anyone have a set list?"
Save for ambient interludes, where audience rustling merges with performance, the music invokes quiet reverence, and there's an overall formal atmosphere. Wearing a white jacket with black lapels over her thick-collared cotton top, Holter looks like somebody who spends daytimes running a glamorous convent. Her vocal is rich, unpredictable and note-perfect. When Holter sings, she wears practically no facial expression whatsoever: to adopt her yen for cross-form reference (album concepts are plucked from '50s cinema and millennia-old Greek plays), she has the suave disinterest of Catherine Keener in Being John Malkovich, with transcendent flashes of Maria Falconetti's Joan of Arc.
A brief word on her band: there's a violinist, saxophonist, and cellist that plucks rather than bows — none of whom particularly scream of having departed virginity before their 20s. The mysteriously fertile-looking drummer bucks the cliché, and his delicate jazz flourishes lend the music a curious offbeat elegance. A balance of old and new, it's a relentlessly accomplished set: 2012's Ekstasis is pure magnificence, but new album Loud City Song ups the ante. Despite the futility of recreating something so perfectly captured on record, the performance mostly maintains the necessary tightness and range, achieving an impressive, immersive grandiosity, a limpid dissonance that evokes Scott Walker's later work.
"Here is a new song. It's called 'World,'" Holter monotones, opening her mouth to elaborate before something frightens her off the idea. Her music has a physical effect, one that doesn't so much knock you off your feet as gently distort the senses with otherworldly outbursts and lulls, until the concept of balance seems cosmically irrational. Building into a tranquil-bordering-comatose cover of Barbara Lewis's "Hello Stranger" and a scattily euphoric "Maxim II," Loud City Song's astonishing zenith, Holter's intense performance is one of superior artistry.