Sunday, November 10, 2013

Holly Miranda In Her Element

Domino Kirke was first up at Knitting Factory on October 29th, and she played a sweet, short set of her dark-hued psychedelic ballads, growing more comfortable with each song. It seems her career as a superstar doula had kept her from the stage for a while and she was blowing the rust off as the opener for a triple bill of singers with Holly Miranda as headliner. Her sister Jemma is one of the stars of the HBO series Girls, but fortunately nothing went awry during her performance, as so often happens on that brilliant show. Domino is rock royalty, being the daughter of Simon Kirke, who as the drummer in Free and Bad Company helped define the soundtrack of the 70's. While Domino's music has none of the blues-based swagger those bands did so well at their best, perhaps her father's wonderfully spacious drumming had an influence on her open and uncluttered songwriting. Hopefully the warm reception she got at the Knit will encourage her to follow up The Guard, her four-song EP from 2012, with some new music.

While the stage was reset, a woman who had just come in asked me and my friend if the middle act, Kendra Morris, had gone on yet. No, she's next, we explained, you just missed Domino Kirke. It turned out that she was a friend of Kendra's and she wondered what had brought us to the club. "Holly Miranda," I said, "I've been following her for years but I haven't seen her perform in a while." She hadn't heard of Holly before and wondered how I had found out about her. I wasn't surprised by her surprise to my answer: "The New York Times." Nobody really thinks about finding out about cutting-edge rock music in the sometimes risible pop music coverage featured in the Gray Lady, which often takes the form of lengthy disquisitions on such non-entities as Brad Paisley. But every once in a while you learn about something amazing - I can recall first reading about Gang Of Four and Public Enemy in the paper - so I try to keep up with their features and reviews.

It was back in March 2009 when I first read about a Holly Miranda show at Zebulon. Something about how the music was described and the evident passion in the accompanying photo drove me to MySpace (yes, MySpace) to listen. The sounds were hypnotic, the voice was mesmerizing. She had nothing released at the time so I bookmarked her page and listened every day. I was apparently not the only one who was impressed - Kanye West shared Slow Burn Treason on his blog. I downloaded it from there and soon began to assemble a little playlist of free stuff as she made it available.

It turned out that she had quite a story: raised by fundamentalists in the Midwest, she had almost no exposure to popular culture until she fled for NYC at the age of 16. She fell in with some unscrupulous music biz types (who turned out to be mob connected) and recorded her first album, which can definitely be filed under juvenilia. Soon she was fronting a punky band called the Jealous Girlfriends and started having some success, with songs featured on Gray's Anatomy and other shows. But her vision was more expansive and she went solo, which is where I came in.

During her time in NYC, she became friends with the members of TV On The Radio and Dave Sitek began producing her demos. Eventually they made an album together, the Magician's Private Library. It's a fine record but I couldn't help thinking that Sitek's somewhat heavy-handed production had muted Holly. This was borne out when I finally had a chance to see her perform at Celebrate Brooklyn in August 2010. The sense of dynamics was far more pronounced than on the album and her gorgeous voice had a better chance to shine. This was also my daughter Hannah's first rock concert (she was 11) and she was riveted. One highlight was Holly's cover of the Etta James classic, I'd Rather Go Blind.

Holly moved to California and embarked on her next record, financed through PledgeMusic. The two songs she has released so far, Desert Call and Everlasting, are easily among the best songs of the year and lead me to believe that my hope that the album will be the full expression of her unique voice as a singer and songwriter will not be unfulfilled. When she's at her best, as in the new songs, she has the rare ability to induce me to stop what I'm doing and just listen. She seems incapable of being insincere, a quality borne out by the startling version of Alphaville's Forever Young included on the album of cover songs that was my pledge reward. I'd always dismissed this song as pure pap, but she approaches it without a shred of irony, finding a kernel of soulful truth in it and making me hear the song the same way she did.

Unfortunately, insincerity was not a problem for Kendra Morris, whose set stood between us and Holly's performance. I won't belabor the point but her clich├ęd belting drove us to get a drink in the outer room, where we remained until she left the stage.

Good company and good whiskey made the time pass quickly, however, and soon we were watching Holly take the stage, her spangled shirt sparkling in the dark. Her band included another guitarist, a bassist, a drummer and, in an interesting addition to this standard line up, a baritone sax player. As soon as the first song started, you could tell we were in the presence of the complete package. In the years since I saw her in Prospect Park, she has become a commanding bandleader and a versatile rhythm guitarist, while harnessing her remarkable vocal instrument with complete control. The sound was far from ideal - over-amped and a bit too bright - but the power of her music was undeniable and felt too big for the room, a quality noted by Jon Caramanica in that long-ago review.

When she played the new songs, it also became clear how far her songwriting has come. She has left behind the sing-song melodies that were sometimes a crutch in her earlier songs and and has developed a style both more sophisticated and more elemental, seeming to tap into the mainline of why we humans started writing songs in the first place. Perhaps singing songs associated with Etta James and Barbara Mason, not to mention embodying the live-wire emotion of a song like God Damn The Sun by Swans (also included on the covers album) has left its mark on her own writing. Whatever her process, throughout the concert I couldn't shake the feeling that her craft has now risen to the level of her talent.

Even the songs from The Magician's Private Library sounded more alive. The sax turned out to be a canny choice, sometimes doing the job of a horn section, and sometimes providing a drone or wash not unlike a keyboard. I'm not sure who was playing it, but she brought the house down with a melodic and surprisingly nimble solo. However, most of the bravura moments came from Holly herself - her voice, her stage presence, her songs - and I think the she might finally find herself in rooms big enough for her music when the next album comes out in spring 2014.


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