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Julia Holter - Ekstasis

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Artist: Julia Holter

Album: Ekstasis

Label: Rvng Intl.

Review date: Mar. 19, 2012

Julia Holter - "In the Same Room" (Ekstasis)

There’s no question that Julia Holter’s brand of home-cooked production is impressive. She’s a composer who can weave disparate sound sources into rich, atmospheric tapestries, an alchemist with a skill for knowing when to add a pinch of this, or a dash of that, when to let things simmer, and when to bring them to a boil. Be this as it may, on Ekstasis, it’s Holter’s knack for simple melody that shines through.

The Los Angeles native’s second full-length flies closer to earth than its predecessor, 2011’s Tragedy; there’s no Euripides drama as over-arching inspiration, and this time the ambient soundscapes are usually in servitude to the songwriting, bringing Holter’s pop sensibility more often to the fore. Tragedy was a willfully eccentric and ambitious debut. Ekstasis takes many of the same tools and uses them more directly — and is a better album for it.

In discussion of Holter’s music, there’s a tendency to focus on the idiosyncrasies of her sound, and Ekstasis still supports such talk. Those who want to focus on the singularity of Holter’s music can continue to do so; those who’d rather draw lines to oddball pop legends Laurie Anderson or Kate Bush have some ammunition, too. But what’s at the core of Ekstasis‘s strength is something more universal. “In the Same Room” is only shades removed from being an accomplished bit of synth pop. Peer through the clouds and “Moni Mon Amie” is a rather straightforward ballad built on a music-box melody. It might seem reductive to take this tack with Ekstasis, but even if the album retains aspects of Tragedy‘s approach, these ears hear more ties to, for example, 1980s Top 40 songwriting and production than any of Holter’s more “interesting” influences. Before it drifts off, “Four Gardens” is almost radio friendly, albeit a little too adventurous and few decades too late to be played by Casey Kasem on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

Holter’s atypical accouterments and unpredictable flights of fancy are sometimes just what a track needs. The baroque, shape-shifting “Marienbad” is the album’s best example of Holter’s gift for making adventurous, unpredictable music that remains easy on the ears. But while Ekstasis can still be an engaging listen when it unspools into its more ambient, nonlinear dream states, like during “The Boy in the Moon,” I nearly always find myself wanting to hear Holter rein things back in.

Tragedy and Ekstasis were written concurrently, so the differences between the two don’t represent a shift or development so much as a more encompassing look at Holter as a songwriter. When she’s at her best, her songs belie many of the particular peculiarities that she puts into them, but I wonder after the release of Ekstasis, if exalting her avant abilities ignores the most potent part of her work.

By Adam Strohm

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