I’ve really been thinking a lot lately about all of the subjectivity in music these days. I mean, so much is changing all the time – we get all our music online for free nowadays, an artist can produce an entire album on a computer (I realize I’m like 15 years late on pointing this out, for the record), and the production methods in some cases, with their decrease in analog elements, pose a question of whether there be any advantage in viewing the music live.
So I’m glad this new Julia Holter came around and reminded me that, he**, at least music is intrinsically and historically a mindfu** anyway, so nothing’s really worse than it is. Basically, you know this album is going to be a significant experience with partial help of the premise that it’s a Julia Holter album and it sounds like she’s actually trying, about 30 seconds into opener “Turn the Light on,” which is a really hard song to describe, though I might anyway. One thing I hear is a devolution into arrhythmic studio-object-bashing the type of thing that graced another album leadoff “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and which were the ideal PREMISE for the Califone album Roomsound, if not necessarily unleashed in full torque on said project (partly for that project’s complete immersion in sound pop songs, admittedly). Then, you’ve got this hazy, spliced and gibberish-type vocal effect dripped onto the mix which I think features multiple vocals and immediately called to mind The Stone Roses’ space-out “Full Fathom Five.” The exact effect this non-thematic opening song which is basically nonsensical but beautiful gobbledygook is roughly that of the latter here, which, considering the point Julia Holter is at in her career, is a refreshing affirmation that she’s not in the business of “crowd pleasing” or “hit singles.” So far, this album is DEFIANTLY indie (out on Domino), while also potently avoiding pretention. This is especially commendable seeing as, judging by the magnanimous valor of her vocal pipes, Holter could have been on American Idol, if she’d wanted.
By “Chaitius,” anyway, it becomes glaringly clear that Aviary (which means house of birds, basically) is Holter’s drone-ambient baby, two of the three songs up to this point essentially featuring no rhythm, melody or theme, of any sort. Holter emits tiny vocal droplets throughout “Chaitius,” mimicking an animal with strings in the background which themselves call to mind a group of birds flying spiritedly overhead. “Voce Simul,” like its predecessor “Chaitius,” spans six-plus minutes and launches into a squalid session of seemingly random observations, delivered vocally and without rhythmic or melodic rule. Halfway through, though, the latter track takes an unexpected turn, congealing into a kind of cadence or chant of “O-K-O-K…” (remember nothing in the song has been done rhythmically up ‘til now) and then fitting in this spooky loopy effect, rendering the vocals busy and echoing. All in all, “Voce Simul” (apparently meaning “fake voice” or “simulated voice”) is piano-and-string minimalism. Just on the off chance, then, that these two tracks gave us ANY semblance of melody, Holter would like to wash that from your minds with the disorientingly nonsensical “Everyday (sic) is an Emergency.” This track is an indescribable miasma of pitchless string and bagpipe and synth so grainy it reminded me of bees buzzing. The mood of the music is expressionist – dark and foreboding, but Holter constructs it with so little sonic bombast, leaving things so ambient and digestible, that again, the result is more like minimalism. One precocious result of her choice here is that you notice every textural detail she imbues into “Everyday is an Emergency” with undeniable alacrity. Echo-y, textural piano confronts the song’s latter third, then, leading things off into the night with a spooky, simplistic minor-chord riff summoning thought’s of PJ Harvey’s twisted mating call “To Bring You My Love.” All in all, in just summing up the first six songs on this album, one thing is undeniably sure. Julia Holter’s level of focus in putting together this album was world-class, to channel this feeling she had “in an aviary full of shrieking birds,” as Bandcamp states, and to then dispatch straight to that vision while lodged in LA, essentially deaf to her electro-pop peers of that city like Glasser and Grimes.
Surely, with the exorbitantly experimental nature of just about every track up to “I Shall Love 2,” the idea of a “single” emanating from this staggering LP was ludicrous to me, if not downright laughable. Still, that’s exactly what “I Shall Love 2” is billed as, according to the Wikipedia.
“I Shall Love 2,” materializing as it does in the middle of an album so epic and meandering, having the tall task of following Holter’s old work in the catchy and hummable, is an entity which would certainly warrant a review all its own. Opening with the bittersweet kiss-off delivered in spoken word by Holter “That is all / That is all / There is nothing else”, “I Shall Love 2” continues down the near-ambient path Holter’s constructed for the majority of this album, actually though FURNISHING a chord progression, and a tense, compelling one at that, built immediately on gentle, sugary synth and high hat, which was recorded live and then programmed. More than being the sort of Aviary “thesis statement” boiled down to one swatch of melancholy, I think “I Shall Love 2” is just another great majestic Holter vibe which happens to be more influenced by Annie Lennox, like the stuff on Ekstasis, than This Heat. Still, it’s the way Holter’s able to oversee a convergence of these two beautiful things, the hazy, hallucinogenic feel of Aviary as a whole and her knack for delivering catchy songwriting, all upon this one track, that marks its true genius.
“Colligere” is sort of half annoying horn crap, half otherworldly synth and string, which reaffirms the impossibility of believing that only six musicians total were active on this recording. It builds ominously, again likely influenced by the Expressionist classical of Bela Bartok et. al., swelling and flexing uncontrollably like the outside world itself has a tendency to.
“In Gardens’ Muteness” gives us just a hint, or an idea, of the soft pop that was Holter’s brainchild on former works, but still reinstates that Aviary is unlike anything she’s ever done, with choral vocals sung in falsetto sprinkled throughout, bolstered only by gentle, intermittent piano. At the end of the day, it’s unlikely that the debate around Aviary will be of WHETHER or not it’s a classic (I contend that it clearly is), but whether it’s primarily a drone-ambient album, a pop album or a classical album (Holter should be commended for establishing probably a better case for the latter than the initial two). To me, it’s impossible to really pigeonhole it as any of these – it slips in and out of these convenient roles at will, in fact, certain tracks being too simple for classical and others too obtuse and conceptual for pop. Ultimately, though, its primary cornerstone that is really awe-inspiring, is the focus – that penchant that the hallucinogenic vibe has for never surrendering to convention, to the default, to gimmick or ploy, or, anything at all other than the seminal inspiration the artist derived from finding herself briefly in her own little Alfred Hitchcock movie.