I’ve been a big fan and follower of Jolie Holland since her home-recorded debut Catalpa came out of left field in 2003, but this little gem sneaked under my radar. If you missed it, too, when it came out quietly in September, you should remedy that.
Holland and Samantha Parton were among the founders of The Be Good Tanyas, although Holland left that fold fairly early and struck out on her own. The two have remained fast friends, though, and Parton has frequently supported Holland on reord and tour over the intervening years. Parton was recovering from injuries received in a couple of car accidents when Holland contacted her and said, essentially, “let’s make a record!” *Wildflower Blues* is the result. They co-wrote some songs at Parton’s place in Vancouver, Canada, and recorded them and some choice covers at Mike Coykendall’s home studio in Portland. The whole thing has a slightly ramshackle, down-home vibe that’s surely part Coyendall’s doing and that fits these songs and musicians well.
The Tanyas put a Townes Van Zandt song on their first album, and Holland has covered him too. The first single off this album is a Van Zandt song I’d never heard before, and it stands a chance of becoming one of my favorites. “You Are Not Needed Now” may be a curious way to start an album, a song about death (as so many of Van Zandt’s are), but they do it just right and bring it alive with Holland singing lead in her honey-and-vinegar, Texas-by-way-of-New-Orleans drawl and Parton’s sweet harmonies. And best yet there’s a lovely shambling keyboard duet in one of the breaks, with an electric piano on one channel and a psychedelically sermonizing organ on the other.
Holland picked a small band of like-minded musicians for this date, including Stevie Weinstein-Foner of Los Angeles on guitars, Jared Samuel of Brooklyn on piano, bass, and guitar, and Justin Veloso of Sisters, Oregon, via Brooklyn on drums. They’re perfect. I’m not sure who’s playing those keyboards on “You Are Not Needed Now” but it could be Holland. She’s a fine piano player as she has demonstrated every time I’ve seen her in concert, and as she (I think) demonstrates on “Make It Up To Me,” a gospel-laden R&B ballad with some sanctified harmony from Parton again. This one is a stripped-down arrangement with just the piano, bass and drums accompanying the vocals.
Holland has lived in Brooklyn and Portland (and perhaps other places) when not on the road in the past few years, and Portland may have been where she got to know Michael Hurley, one of this country’s true underground folk music stars. The two have toured a bit together and played some pop-up shows in Portland, and here we find his song “Jocko’s Lament” off of his 1971 album Armchair Boogie. Holland and Parton do it as a slower-than-slow blue ballad (the way Hurley does most of his songs these days, in truth), with some beautiful whistling by Holland in place of an instrumental break.
Holland says in the album’s publicity material that they listened compulsively to Dylan’s Nashville Skyline while writing these songs; they do a Dylan cover here, but it’s a deep cut from his *Self Portrait* album, “Minstrel Boy.” It’s one of the most shambolic and enjoyable tracks on the album; Holland has added a couple of extra verses about a couple of poets who’ve been influential for her, William Blake and Steven Jesse Bernstein.
Parton sings lead on the title track, her breathy delivery made even more ethereal by hollow, echoing vocal processing and the song’s swampy arrangement, complete with Creedence-style reverberating electric guitar. They round out the album with songs they wrote together: There’s a kiss-off calypso song (“The Last”), a twangy country shuffle “(Biding My Time”) with more of that great whistling; an Alialujah Choir-style indie-folk song with multi-tracked vocals (“Little Black Bear”); a funereal love song with wheezing accordion (or possibly harmonium) called “Johnny Said To May,” and the album ends on a high note with the jaunty instrumental “Gooseberry Rag.”
(Cinquefoil Records, 2017)