Through the Looking Glass: Julia Holter’s Ekstasis

You are late. For a very important date. A curious journey into a strange realm of delicate and somber layers of sound. Follow me, if you will, for a brief diversion into a land of dream sounds and reveries. Follow me down the rabbit hole into Julia Holter’s Ekstasis.

A digression on terminology…. For the classic language scholars, perhaps the origin of the word or term Ekstasis is not lost on them. For the remainder (of us) who traffic in the more contemporary languages, Ekstasis is the Greek form of “ecstasy”. As defined in the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary1 , “ecstasy” is: (1) a state of being beyond reason and self-control; (2) a state of overwhelming emotion; esp: rapturous delight (3) Trance; esp: a mystic or prophetic trance.2

Each subtle variation on the definition of “ecstasy” is both an apt description of and excellent synthesis of this unique album by Los Angeles’ Julia Holter. As you might have gathered by way of my introduction, Ekstasis is not your traditional or conventional record. Holter is regarded as “experimental pop music” by certain music media (read: Pitchfork by way of whom I discovered her music some months back). However, I think the term “experimental” in this context does not connote the usual associations one tends to have with experimental, such as “atonal”, non-melodic, improvisational, lacking structure, etc. Rather, Holter’s music is experimental in so far as it eschews (for the most part) the traditional verse-chorus-verse song structure and focuses more on layering various instruments, sounds, and vocal arrangements to create a soundscape of dream-laced compositions. In many ways, she is no different than a number of DJ/producers such as Four Tet or The Books (now defunct); instrumental-only indie/rock bands such as Tortoise; or more recognizable dream/fuzz-pop bands like the Cocteau Twins, Beach House, the Lower Dens, or, even Bon Iver, on the last album. Perhaps, the term “experimental” is used for branding purposes. Or, then again, it may be a way of situating Julia in the tradition of musicians on the margin between music and performance art such as Laurie Anderson or Meredith Monk. Personally, I find Julia’s work leaning more towards the music side and is “arguably” more accessible (in part because I don’t think you need to “get the work” to appreciate the work).

But, what does it sound like? A delicate quasi-Baroque chamber orchestra overlaid with a cascade of Julia’s siren-like vocals, subtle synthesizer melodies, and minimal percussion (for accent). Of course, each song has even more nuanced variations on this theme, but the whole record has an otherworldly, old-world meshed against modernity feel evocative of Dead Can Dance or Kronos Quartet (both exquisite synthesizers of eastern and western musical traditions). Although this is a record that (I would argue) is about the sum of its parts, there are two stellar tracks that could stand on their own: “In the Same Room” and “Marienbad”. “In the Same Room” was the first track that caught my attention and it has all the elements of baroque production and vocal layering previously discussed. However, unlike the remainder of the album, it is has the feel of a “traditional” pop song in part because of the percussion at the outset of the song which lays a blueprint of anticipation for what is to come – don’t be surprised, though, if expectations aren’t met. (If you are a fan of Beach House, this track will definitely appeal to you.). On the opposite end of the spectrum, “Marienbadwanders in a series of varying vocal motifs of curiosity, whimsy, nightmare, and, finally, epiphany. If Philip Glass set out to make a mini-vocal arrangement in the vein of Einstein on the Beach and invited David Lynch3 to supply the aural narrative, this would be their scion. Enough discussing the odd and opulent landscape of Ekstasis, please take venture into its rapturous delight below:

  • Listen to the entirety of Ekstasis here via Spotify.
  • Listen toMarienbad” here. (For non-Spotify users)
  • See the video for “In the Same Room” here.
  • Visit Julia Holter’s website here.

First Listen Alert!!! As always, I try my best to update on bands and records, being spotlighted on NPR’s First Listen. Starting today, NPR will be streaming the following three records for free (click on name to listen):

It is pure cosmic coincidence (or the Super Moon?) that I am writing about Julia Holter’s record on the day that two artists who traffic in a similar aesthetic (i.e., Beach House and Exitmusic) are being streamed on NPR. Although I’ve only listened through the Beach House and Exitmusic albums once, they are excellent background/atmospheric music to accompany a day of work — who knows you might impress your co-workers.

May your day be merry and bright,


1 Note: From the print not the online version. As a recalcitrant Luddite, I maintain an unhealthy collection of dictionaries of varying lengths. One day, I will be bold enough to graduate to the OED’s voluminous and tiny print, but for now the MWCD will do.

2 A fourth entry exists which references the pharmaceutical “party” drug of the late 80s/90s most often associated with raves, house music, and the European trip-hop scene. I am venturing a guess that Julia was not referencing this usage.

3 I tried so hard not to invoke David Lynch, but, if ever the term Lynchian or Lynch-esque were appropriate, then Ekstasis captures it. (Think more of the mid-early Lynch work, i.e. Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, or Twin Peaks.)

The Cruelest Month Mix and a Norah Jones Reboot

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

– T.S. Eliot from The Waste Land

Hopefully, your April bore less resemblance to the despondent imagery of Eliot’s lauded masterpiece, written 90 years ago (for the record, I’m a Prufrock” man myself). Whether the budding of Spring or the end of Winter brought you sunshine or rain, there was no dearth of fabulous tracks pouring through the airwaves. Mine is a passion for collecting and spreading these little treasures for you listening pleasure, so click here to listen to “The Cruelest Monthmix (via YouTube). Perhaps you’ll recognize some ditties from previous posts, but let me just highlight some of the more recent numbers that have caught my attention.

  • Japandroids’ “The House That Heaven Built” – A fist-pumping anthemic, rallying cry from this Vancouver duo. Reminds me a lot of the high adrenaline moments from The Get Up Kids and The Hold Steady.
  • Peter Broderick’s “Colin”Slow haunting dreamscape with a brilliant explosion at song’s end. This has the sort of aural tapestry feel of Bon Iver’s Bon Iver.
  • Yuck’ “Chew” – One of my favorite discoveries in 2011 returns with another trip down early 90s nostalgia. The opening totally reminds me of the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Rocket”.
  • M.Ward’s “Primitive Girl”Perhaps She is getting to Him and turning those dour days a little brighter? Either way M’s voice on here seems a perfect complement to the old-time feel of the song. (Robin Hilton of NPR totally has me hearing the Bangles “Manic Monday” riff in the chorus.)
  • Kuhrye—oo’s “Give In (For the Fame)” – Hidden at the end off one of my recent posts was this gorgeous song that is on repeat in my head: a loop-intensive trance-dance song. I think there is a lot of latter day Four Tet (i.e., Angel Echoes) and James Blake in this.
  • Eternal Summers’ “Millions” – Opening with a guitar riff that feels lifted from Dire Straits or Don Henley, this song turns into a really poppy and peppy New Wave/Indie Rock gem with hints of Heavenly and Velocity Girl, two thoroughly under appreciated bands.
  • Mynabirds’ “Generals” – Oh boy, this is a gun shot of a song with hints of the Knack, lo-fi garage rock a la The White Stripes, and Sleigh Bells and just a barnburner!
  • Cassie’s “King of Hearts” – In the words of Lady Gaga, “Just Dance.” (If this song isn’t already on the late-nite dance floors across the country, it will be very soon. Sooo good.)
  • Purity Ring’s “Obedear” – If you are enjoying the new material from Grimes (and perhaps it’s her singing here, a vocal doppelganger?), you will love this track. A little more down-beat and rambling (like my writing), but it’s an intoxicating listen.
  • Fenster’s “Oh Canyon” – A muzzled lo-fi version of a folk song in the vein of The Head and the Heart.
  • Maps and Atlas’ “Old and Gray” – If you were saddened by the Fleet Foxes’ recent break-up, these Chicago folk-rockers will be a welcome antidote.
  • Exitmusic’s “The Night” – This duo released a phenomenal four song EP last year and here is their latest offering.
  • Also new material from The Walkmen, Beach House, Hot Chip and concluding with Norah Jones and Danger Mouse see below…

Norah Jones and Danger Mouse: A Perfect Marriage of rhythm and (lyrical) blues

If you don’t know Norah Jones, you have probably been living under a rock. The young chanteuse of Come Away with Me fame was a staple of your local cozy coffee shop or chain-coffee a la Starbucks or Caribou for the better part of 2002 to 2005. And, if you know her work you are probably thinking, why are you writing about Norah Jones? Well, throw out everything you think or know about her music and focus on the simple, undeniable “fact” that Norah has a phenomenal voice. The sort of voice that nearly every composer, songwriter, producer wants to incorporate or collaborate with. And, she’s been quite busy in that realm. Perhaps you noticed that she appeared on, of all records, Belle and Sebastian’s Write About Love?!? (I didn’t know that Starbucks had made it to Glasgow.)

Enter Danger Mouse. No, not the 80s cartoon mouse moonlighting as a British Spy.  The brilliant creator and producer of The Grey Album, Gnarls Barkley‘s St. Elsewhere, and, most recently, Broken Bells’ Broken Bells. Odd pairing right? Nope, an almost perfect experimental yin to Norah’s “traditional” yang. You would never think that one of music’s most creative, off-beat, quirky, outsider musician and/or producer would mesh so well with Norah Jones’ adult alternative sounding voice. I would argue that Danger Mouse’s aesthetic works better with Jones than either of his other famous collaborations with Cee-Lo or James Mercer (of the Shins). The new album entitled Little Broken Hearts is yet another break-up album – more sweet music out of heartache, one might as well be productive with their despondency and/or anger.

Give the whole record a listen if you like here, but I want to draw your attention to two tracks in particular (click on song title to listen):

Say Goodbye – The first single from the album has the feeling of the indie-baroque pop that Danger Mouse used on the Broken Bells record, but Norah’s soulful voice feels more at home in this aural landscape than James Mercer’s did.  The vocal performance on this track is coy and playfully sensual evoking the spectre of Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot* or Gentlemen Prefer Blondes** (or her (in)famous rendition of “Happy Birthday to JFK).  You can almost imagine Norah singing this song to the ex and saying through her inflections “look at what you threw away.” (Also, it’s curious the (unintentional?) allusion to Madonna’sTake a Bow” (for the MTV viewer’s of yore this video featured Madonna with a Spanish bullfighter, see here) another song about the end of a love affair with the wonderfully opening reproach: “take a bow, the night is over, this masquerade is getting older…”.)

She’s 22 — What is perfect about this song is that it is all about Norah’s vocal performance and its subtle nuances. About the only instrumentation in the piece is a repetitive, plaintive guitar chord that underscores the narrative of contemplative curiosity. The air of disaffected and disinterested restraint in Norah’s voice makes this song even more powerful. At the song’s end she intones “Does she make you happy? I’d like to see you happy” and you know there is no truth to those words other than the fact that she’s uttered them.

…and with that I bid you adieu,


* and ** — Run, don’t walk to the video store to see these two classic films.