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Album Of The Week

Written On Skin: Julia Holter's Something in the Room She Moves
Laura Cannell , March 21st, 2024 09:52

The latest album from Julia Holter, full of twinkling synths and muted brass, is an exercise in being fully present, finds Laura Cannell

Photo credit: Camille Blacke

Listen to this album looking out of a window, hopefully with some early blossom in view. Just over the roof tops there is one tree with flowers the pink of Himalayan salt. When I’m listening to this, I can’t look away. Something has stopped me from moving. I can only give in to the music now. My full attention is on waiting for the next treat: the embellishments, the secrets and surprises that Julia Holter offers. Something in the Room She Moves is certainly an intimate listen. It has a looseness that evokes warm undertones. But now I want to hear it on a massive sound system. Laying on the floor in the middle of a modern art gallery, or an epic festival tent – somewhere I can feel the sonorous explorations.

From the opening few seconds of Something in the Room She Moves, there is an inquisitiveness, a playfulness. The disparate sounds of ‘Sun Girl’ are strewn around the room and the voice acts like a magnet gathering treasures together, drawing them closer until they form twinkly ornaments over the strong bodied voice, synth, drum and bass. A dreamy vocal floats around at head height like layers of beach bonfire smoke at dusk. Then back to glissando sliding bass interlude with avant-jazz vocalised flute. The voice-magnet pulls in improvised calls, in and out of focus the gravity gives way to end somewhere new: a lullaby.

Muted brass on ‘This Morning’ sits with a soft intimate voice and ethereal piano, conjuring a space somewhere between a sunlight-dappled forest clearing and an underground piano bar. Each move feels like a final cadence, slow and deliberate.

There is a taste of John Martyn’s Solid Air, in the title track, ‘Something in the Room She Moves’. Holter has a newness in this album, a curiosity, a fresh presence. Music appears like magic through the practice of improvisation, playfulness and collage. It’s easy to be seduced by the ethereal warmth, the occasional asymmetry in the ether on Holter’s album

‘Meyou’ is a stand-out vocal track, a solo voice morphing into heterophonic improvisation. The simultaneous untogetherness of breath and pitch begin so innocently before disintegrating into beautiful vocal glissandos. The chords never settle for too long. There is no option but to listen in the moment and let it consume you. There is no indication of direction or quick path of repetition and pattern to latch onto, you have to sit in the sound, absorb it and soak it up. Holter really captures the magical state of making in this track. It has the air of a Hildegard von Bingen sequence. The twelfth-century abbess, composer and herbalist wrote music that was sung every day by her group of nuns. The female voice is leading and sliding between centuries here. This could easily be medieval but it is from contemporary LA. Our voices are not so far apart though: a few centuries, and many experiences. But being in the moment seems to come back to a physical form. The voice, and instruments which act as a voice. Through play, experimentation, improvisation and composition, Holter captures her sound with a free energy about it.

In Something in the Room She Moves, Holter is exploring the body’s internal sounds, getting ever closer to a physical presence – none more so that on the sixth track, ‘Spinning’, which features an unyielding rooted heartbeat. Above the off-centre beats and bass are detaché vocals (in this case broad but separated syllables). Improvised instrumentals scatter through like thought bubbles, popping in and out of focus. ‘Spinning’ not only spins, it curls and sweeps. It creates a continuum of delicate and joyful magic.

‘Spinning’ is an anchor to the whole album. We know that the internal systems are there in our bodies, but we do not hear or see them. Holter’s music has a strength, a core, but she doesn’t need to touch it for us to understand it. The songs are suggestive of the anatomy of her music, sometimes they are literal and on this occasion they are always present. 

‘Ocean’ demands slow deep breathing, a blissful contemporary chamber ensemble aesthetic evokes the distinct sound of Ireland’s Crash Ensemble. There is beauty beneath the dissonant waves. We are travelling with wonder along the body of the slow-bowed shimmery bass strings and smooth non-vibrato harmonics which glitter close to the surface.

‘Evening Mood’ brings a smoother jazz feel combined with a toy synth and chamber aesthetic. It’s woozy and dreamy and expansive and warm. It is a montage song for your own movie. Imagine you are listening on the train or while you are walking through broad sunlit streets. It sounds like an early evening in summer. If this song was an object it would be a striking piece of amber. It would be the part of the movie where we find out what you do on your own, left with your own thoughts while in the middle of falling in love, eye’s looking upwards, a spring in your step. A lush warm breeze to float upon.

‘Talking to the Whisper’ teases with silences, false endings, improvisations over swaying chordal drone beds. The breathiness of the vocals in ‘Who Brings Me’ returns us to the sun, the water and dreams which appeared earlier. Was it all a dream? A beautiful chromatic sequence happens in ‘Who Brings Me’. perhaps one of the most delicious minimalist moments of this incredibly crafted and conjured collection of emotions.

I approached this album with an open heart, and I was presented gift after gift of riches. This music has the power to warm you through and you can sense the love that has gone in. No compromise or curtailing. Something in the Room She Moves wafts between a pureness and clarity of tone and a slightly mysterious aura of ambiguity. It’s a puzzle. The form is complex. The body of work is transient. Even on repeated listens it barely stays the same twice. This is shapeshifting music in it’s own world – a world that is good to be in. There are moments of dense intensity, but once you are invited inside the world that Holter has created, there is no going back. You wouldn’t want to. This is a journey you won’t want to miss. 

One of the intentions with the album was to stop herself from reminiscing about the past or living in the imagined future, it is an exercise in being present, she says: “to be passionate in a state of making something, being in that moment, and what is that moment?”. But of course this album is more than an exercise, it is about living and creating in the moment alongside composing (which is essentially just slowed-down improvisation). It is also about following your instinct. In Holter’s case, that means unlocking the sound of who she is now compared with who she was when she wrote the last album she released (Aviary in 2018). It’s about leaning in and drawing out the feelings you never knew you wanted or needed to communicate. Julia Holter presents a fully formed album full of openness and truth.

Something in the Room She Moves is not harking back. It is fifty-four minutes of time well spent in a colourful and textured landscape. Listening to the album is like walking through an arched tunnel of leafy greenery and striking sunset colours. The green gets dark and draws us into the details while the sunset colours represent Holter’s words. Her voice waxes and wanes changing focus from orange to pink, traversing the full timbre from rasping breath vocals to full strength joyful singing. The whole album entices you in deeper the longer you spend with it. You can almost touch the sunsets and feel the sumptuous foliage on your skin, as you are enveloped in the richness and sweet mysteries of each song on this incredible album.