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Lonnie Holley - Just Before Music

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Artist: Lonnie Holley

Album: Just Before Music

Label: Dust-to-Digital

Review date: Mar. 14, 2013

The term "outsider artist" carries a lot of baggage. Critics would argue that it marginalizes and creates an unnecessary and false delineation between legitimate "high art" and folk forms rooted in tradition. It’s a fair argument, and conversations about creative people who fall under this banner aren’t without their dollops of condescension and exoticization. But when discussing an artist as singularly inspired and seemingly unconcerned with participating in any stream (let alone the mainstream) of the music business or the art world as Lonnie Holley, the term can be quite useful.

Make no mistake, Holley is a celebrated artist with representation. His work has appeared in the Smithsonian and the White House, and he’s had large scale retrospectives in his native Alabama. On March 22, he performs at the Whitney in New York as part of the museum’s Blues for Smoke exhibition. Perhaps best known as a visual artist, Holley began his artistic endeavors in the late ‘70s as a sculptor, carving two gravestones from scavenged foundry stone for his young nieces who had recently died in a house fire. He branched out into painting and found-material collage, using discarded scrap metal, wire, wood, and whatever else he was able to haul. A creative polymath, Holley released Just Before Music in November 2012 on Dust-to-Digital, his first recorded work to see the light of day.

Holley’s music is deeply affecting, but it’s also mercurial and beguiling. There are no obvious compositional motifs here; the music undulates and shifts along with Holley’s vocal improvisations and stream-of-consciousness lyrics. This is cosmic soul coming straight from the source. Yet, Holley’s concerns can be both mystical and mundane. His incantations, underpinned by a variety of synthesizer sounds, conjure topics ranging from the meaning of art and man’s place in the cosmos to Oprah Winfrey, the economy, and whether Hollywood will survive the digital revolution. The 63-year-old Holley, finds inspiration in the moment, practically pulling at the very fabric of the universe. Whatever raw materials he can reap are run through his veins and let out into the world as compositions such as "Looking for All" and "Fifth Child Burning."

His synth lines can be warm and celestial or as dark and throbbing as anything Martin Rev put down for Alan Vega. Holley shares a similar sensibility with the home recording oddballs gathered together on last year’s Personal Space collection, but where those artists were consciously mutating the funk and soul of the era, Holley’s sound has no obvious antecedent. It’s really his thing and his thing alone. While he is obviously a functioning member of our planet Earth and draws from this reality to make art and music, he approaches this reality at an angle, and the result is a skewed beauty that is deeply personal but striving for the universal.

Just Before Music is unusual but it’s destined to be a classic. Once the listener begins to approach the record from the same angle as Holley, a wonderfully inviting new world opens up. Existing outside of our own suddenly seems like the only right place to be.

By Nate Knaebel

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