Julia Holter with Wintercoats and Sui Zhen, Howlr, Melbourne, 11th December 2015

jameslondon1_blue_blurWell, it sure is the silly season around here, with so many bands lined up to play Australian shores we are all going just a little bit crazy.  As the sun beats down and musical punters adorn themselves in wide brimmed hats and a bit of slip, slop, slap (for those not Australian this is a term we use for covering up with sunscreen to avoid our mighty sun) we get the chance to see less then the obvious artists like Julia Holter.  An American singer, songwriter, composer and producer who, despite releasing some commendable albums over the last few years, signed to the fantastic Domino Records in 2013 and released her most commercially successful album Have You in My Wilderness in 2015.  With such success and revered live performances, her show at Howler in Brunswick tonight, was brimming at capacity.

courtest of mistletoe
Winter Coats image courtesy of mistletoe

With a trio of artists on tonight’s bill and a door opening change to 8pm, sometimes the coordination of getting to a gig on a Friday night, with the realities and pressure of life means that one has to miss the first support, and such was the case here. With panting breath and bursting through the Holwer doors, I managed to catch the last few minutes of Winter Coats. It has been a while since I have seen James Wallace perform live, an artist in it’s true sense, a solo act that draws open instrumentation and electronic effects to create ethereal and often grand sounds that remind me of Sigur Ros.  There are many artists who do this particular type of “live solo music” so to be honest there were no big gasp surprises, but what makes Winter Coats stand out from his counterparts is the accessibility and melodic nature of his music that remains so uncomplicated and unique.  With comparisons to such artists as Juliana Berwick, Olafur Arnarlds, Houses and Porcelain Raft, James is an aficionado of his genre and every time I become part of his live experience he has me ask the question, why not create a live band and go beyond the “gimmick” (and I use that word with all respect) that I believe will create the added atmosphere and connection to give him the recognition he deserves.

I did arrive in time of course to watch the deliciously pop-tastic and rather talented (I was a tad skeptical I must say) Sui Zhen, who tonight a trio of players headed up by Becky Sui Zhen a graduate from the Redbull Music Academy in London alongside the likes of Daisuke Tanabe & Andras Fox.  Becky floats to the stage with her bedroom buddy guitarist and fellow keyboardists, wearinga long yellow dress (her friend in a metallic blue number) with round framed glasses, looking almost beautifully manga like.  Sui Zhen creates electro pop music dripping with so many perfect pop ideas its difficult not to respond with an indie sway and toe tap, a sound that is both super innocent and sugary sweet.  The band rely heavily on the good old drum machine to create the fullness they achieve live, the beats are reminiscent of the basic metronome beats you get with a very basic Casio keyboard, but Becky lines them with sweet harmonious vocals and quirky synth sounds to make them instantly likeable.   There are moments of Emilliana Torini in her voice and lyrical composition, sharing stories of love and vulnerable hearts and any song that can use the word “nonchalant” so perfectly, gets my vote.  Sui Zhen is amatuer pop at its best (and again I say this in the most respectful way) that I hope sees her headlining her own shows of this size.

Julia Holter has had an excellent year with her 2015 release and gained recognition for her intensely involved live performance so there was a sense of intrigue about tonight’s performance with The Guardian honoring her 5 stars from one of her more recent performances.  I use the word “performance” for reason that artists like Holter live experience are more performances than gigs.

Image courtesy of Pitchfork

Holter bashfully takes centre stage with her keyboard as her armor, and after a very awkward few minutes brought upon by Holter trying to sort out her cables while the band stared to the ceiling waiting for her slide into Feel You, one of the singles from her latest album.  With the unmissable keyboard sounds washing over the 420 capacity crowd, the shuffling drums and then Julia Holter’s voice pitch perfect, to me sounded like Karen Carpenter on a good night.  Live, the songs do not sound “full” perhaps revealing that there is some substantial mixing going on with the production of the album and layered instruments that we miss here tonight.  It is Holter’s voice however that keeps it all together and her lyrics clearly sung, we feel like a story is being told.

A handful of songs in and the tension of the crowd feels to ease and Holter livens up with left of centre banter about that reveals her quirky side and makes a whole lot of sense when listening back to the album, post performance.  Silhoutte,  How Long? and Sea Calls Me Home play out on the set list early to a pleased and polite crowd before Holter takes us back through some of her earlier material of her last 3 albums. Lucette Stranded On The Islands sounds just as disconnected live as it does on the album, far too complicated and improvised for my delicate little ears, I prefer a good old melody.

Dipping back into the back catalogue and despite knowing little about her previous works, all of these tracks were stand out for me tonight. This is a True Heart, gave the night a much needed groove and had the audience moving with a polite indie shuffle a perfect lead in to the toe-tapping Everytime Boots, that sounded even more playful live then it does on the album.  It is tracks like this that confirm Julia Holter as an important pop songwriter to our landscape and will hopefully pave the way for even more great song writing.  I had a moment of St. Vincent, who I also saw her last year, pop music that is delivered in such an awkward way that is kind of offered to you, but only for a short time, before a tempo change, has them grab it back.  (Think about it!)

Finishing up with Vasquez an indulgent track that improvises through around 8 minutes of clever musical crafting, taking us to great heights of uncomfortable rhythms before diving back into a soulful, blissed out ending.  It was uncomfortable as it was befitting as it was soulful and poignant, a song that shows the complexities of her songwriting and the complexities of her mind.  For the record, the band….an extremely talented bunch, particularly bass, yet again proving the power of a bass line in holding a band together!