Springtime Can Kill You
olie Holland’s speech impediment is tricky to diagnose. A regional Texan accent? A folkie affect? Brain damage? Or one of those appealing Scandinavian burrs, like Stina Nordenstam on the Romeo and Juliet soundtrack? It renders her lyrics in charmingly soft focus: “me” as “m-ay,” “you” as “yeo” and camouflages Holland’s occasional moments of Victorian erudition. It even has a song all its own: “Crazy Dreams” stretches a single syllable over an entire bar, drifting gently down through a woozy scale before coming home again, like a meandering thought coming full circle.
It’s as good a metaphor as any for Holland’s body of work: folk that folds and twists into a distorted, distressed sound that stretches and compresses like an accordion. A founding Tanya done Being Good, it’s difficult now to imagine how Holland could engender anything as soft and soothing as the Tanyas. Holland’s songs, even at their most innocent, are touched by something thorny and ever-so-slightly poisonous: Chinese toads; wooden pistols.
Thus Springtime Can Kill You, Holland’s second studio album, a title encompassing death and rebirth, with a cover that looks straight out of a murderous Ealing comedy and the music to match. The songwriting on Springtime is of a piece with Holland’s previous work, if somewhat more plain-spoken (on a purely relative scale; she still sings about opals, amethysts, and “your crystalline soul” in the space of four lines of “Mexican Blue”). It is Holland’s arrangements that warrant the new album. On Catalpa and Escondida, she hewed closely to the Gothic folk-jazz that secured Tom Waits as her champion (a double-edged sword, one imagines). And though Springtime is nothing like the paradigm shift of Waits’ Swordfishtrombones it heralds, like that album, the unveiling of a toothier sound that better reflects both Holland’s bloodiness and booziness.
One can imagine Waits’ splintering baritone in “Please Don’t Tell ‘Em” without altering a note: “It's unseemly how I hate myself / I don’t want anyone to see / Least of all someone like you who knows so much about me… I can never be beholden to you / Our affairs are our own / Most of all for someone like me who is always alone.”
The change in Holland’s sound is subtle, frequently little more than the autistic, worrying electric guitar figure that limns the title track or the pedal steel on “Moonshiner,” the most unkinked track on the album, and a deadringer for a Tom Waits song circa 1977. As in her previous albums, the main feature of Springtime is its insistence on Holland’s plaintive, warbling voice and its gypsy-like reluctance to settle on any single note for long, but now it is complemented by the guttural, sotto voce growl of a bowed double bass, disconcertingly on the verge of audibility.