Sunday 17 December 2017

Music: Female voices of the new America

Late contender for gig of the year: Julia Holter plays Vicar Street tonight
Late contender for gig of the year: Julia Holter plays Vicar Street tonight
John Meagher

John Meagher

Angel Olsen released her second album, My Woman, at the beginning of September, and it didn't take long to establish that this was one of the great artistic statements of 2016. It was a revelation that would have been no surprise to those of us who were bewitched by her 2014 album Burn Your Fire For No Witness, but it was heartening to see a wonderfully singular artist deliver another intoxicating album on her terms.

This has been a year where we've lost an unusually high number of music giants, but there's been plenty of light amid the gloom, and that's especially been the case when it comes to US female singer-songwriters. The past few years have felt like we're witnessing a golden age of avant-garde troubadours - all women - and Missouri native Olsen, with her bewitching and deeply personal songs, is among those leading the charge.

Tonight, Dublin hosts another leading light of the new crop of US female singer songwriter. Californian Julia Holter plays Vicar St in what could be a late contender for gig of the year.

Holter's music is unashamedly experimental and highbrow, although there are pop sensibilities to be found among grown-up songs inspired by the 50s musical film Gigi, and Gallic writers like Colette.

Her most recent album, Have You In My Wilderness, is a magnificent piece of work, and the perfect riposte to those who snort that all modern culture has been dumbed down. She's also responsible for the soundtrack for the big-budget boxing movie Bleed for This, starring Miles Teller, recently seen as a would-be jazz drummer in Whiplash.

You'll also be able to hear Holter on an intriguing album made by Syrian refugees and due for release next month. The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians' debut album features Damon Albarn and Paul Weller as well as Holter.

That she's playing one of the country's greatest concert rooms, and not a tiny venue reserved for fringe, left-field acts, is testament to her increasing popularity - although such things are relative: she's not going to be outselling Beyoncé any time soon.

Nor, one would imagine, will Sharon Van Etten. But what a fine few albums this New Jersey troubadour has delivered. Her third, Tramp, is an especially compelling piece of work and was produced by the National's Aaron Dessner (the guitarist-turned-producer also helped to shape the sound of Lisa Hannigan's latest).

Van Etten provided vocals on the National's 2013 album Trouble Will Find Me, and the Matt Berninger-led band have covered some of her songs in concert and one of her most emblematic compositions, 'Love More', was given an intriguing reinterpretation earlier this year by Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, with just a little help from Aaron Dessner and his brother and National bandmate, Bryce.

Another of the this generation's great US female songwriters, Annie Clark - aka St Vincent - is also no stranger to collaboration, having joined forces with Talking Heads' David Byrne for the brass-oriented Love This Giant project four years ago. She's also responsible for one of the very best albums of the past five years, the arresting and sexually frank St Vincent, released in 2014.

Her follow-up, likely due early next year, is eagerly awaited, especially when it emerged that it's being produced by the Grammy-winning Sounwave, who's best known for his work on Kendrick Lamar's zeitgeisty To Pimp A Butterfly.

Like all of the musicians quoted above, Oklahoma native Clark has little interest in being strait-jacketed by genre: her inspirations are manifold and you can hear that in intelligent, thought-provoking songs like 'Digital Witness' and 'Birth in Reverse'. You're never likely to confuse Clark with Merrill Garbus, the queen of lo-fi indie-folk, who - alongside partner Nate Brenner - is one half of the critically-acclaimed Tune-Yards.

Garbus's music may be more polarising than many of her peers but you can't fault her desire to do things differently and to inject a sense of fun into songs that explore issues of gender and identity. If Garbus takes an unconventional approach, so too does Alynda Lee Segarra, the Puerto Rican-American who's best known for fronting the folk-blues band Hooray for the Riff Raff. Segarra is a songwriter who takes a deliciously surreal approach on albums that are richly inspired by the great American south.

Holter, Olsen, Van Etten, Garbus and Segarra: a quintet who demonstrate the rich variety of American song today. They're well worth your acquaintance, trust me. And tickets, at the time of writing, are still available for Holter's Vicar Street show tonight.

* Twenty-five years ago this weekend, U2 released Achtung Baby, their greatest and most enduring album. It completely reinvented the band and delivered the sort of cool patina that they'd never really had before (and, let's be honest here, wouldn't be able to keep hold of for long).

In retrospect, rebooting their sound, style and attitude was a smart thing to do, but it really was a risk at the time, especially as the sessions at Hansa Studio in wintry Berlin threatened to tear the band apart.

But, as is often the case, trying circumstances and internal strife can help bands to deliver their best work, and that was certainly the case with a quartet of Dubliners, all still in their early 30s.

For a thought-provoking and somewhat novel take on Achtung Baby, I'd recommend Stephen Catanzarite's entry in the 33/3 series of books about seminal albums. Subtitled Meditations on Love in the Shadow of the Fall, Catanzarite - a US writer usually associated with theatre - argues that Bono and friends' most complete album is a concept album about love and the fall of man.

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