FREYA JOSEPHINE HOLLICK
The Real World (Cheersquad)
COSMIC COUNTRY IS A TAG that’s been attached to Freya Josephine Hollick for a while now, the term suggesting a kind of musical abstraction and lyrical blurring around the edges that takes country music out of the bright light and puts it through some vaguely “alternative” kaleidoscope.
That this has been more in media/PR commentary than in actuality with her recordings (unlike her live shows apparently) is something to remember when listening to The Real World. Here is an album recorded in the California desert but matured in Covid-/Australia for more than two years as she waited out lockdowns, that from that title on is decidedly not abstract or loose. Instead, it is rooted to some steadfast elements – some longstanding truths – of country music that’s made away from its “safe” places.
One of those truths is that punch out some dynamic/assertive (whisper it, rock) guitars in the middle of your country song and you can on like some force of nature that rustles bushes and ruffles feathers. That’s what happens in the opening track, Nobody Is No Better Than No One, where the hired band, Lucinda Williams’ Buick 6, bring exactly what they offer to their usual boss. That is, a bit of heft with implications, a whiskey-tempered mood, and low-top bluesy cruising, all of which play beneath or behind or around, but never over, the voice.
Such punch is always shown up best of course by its stark contrast, and that comes in the album’s closing track, What A Tender Thing, where a classy little half Chet Atkins/half Wes Montgomery guitar gives way eventually to a more siren-in-the-desert accompaniment to Hollick’s now front-centred, ultra-relaxed voice.
Another truth is that without having to strain you can create a trace of sadness that seeps beneath the skin by the slow call of an old school folk melody. We find that in Wilderness Tune, where nature’s fragility in our clumsy hands – a theme throughout the record – feels both beyond our limited understanding and yet palpable. (That it’s followed by an opening riff in Spend Your Christmas With Rita that tantalisingly suggest it’s about to become Richard and Linda Thompson’s I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, is a kind of folk/rock gift with purchase.)
Of course, space, a weeping pedal and a tremulously forlorn vocal, as you’ll find in the title track, can do sadness pretty darn well too. And maybe even evoke one of those Joshua Tree nights.
A further verity is that admiration and abnegation, or a small-town bar and church, are, like soul and country, but a thin wall apart most of the time. Take Vivienne, June, Dolly and Jolene where you can practically smell the desperation coming off Hollick, with its top note of desire and its undertone of impending guilt, and feel it echoed in the fuzzed guitar’s implied urgency and the rhythm section’s regretful drag. It’s a song about wanting and not wanting to know, doing and almost certainly paying the price – pure country and soul.
Or how about Impossible To Love which has a lingering memory of the rise and fall of gospel in the organ and backing vocals, a healthier dose of the finger snap/knee drop suited balladeer in its sensual rhythm, and a bar band guitar line that doubles up and turns theatrical in the mini solo.
The light touch of Me & Mine and Holdin’ On The Ones You Love pitches them in a daytime, family-hour honky tonk, and once you get past that Thompson-esque intro, Spend Your Christmas With Rita is a similarly warm and welcoming, but hardly revolutionary, slice of country familiar.
Indeed, by this point on the album its dawned on me that as much as I was enjoying the album, as much as the writing showed control of the form, I was now hoping that Hollick would actually refract the vision to something looser, less tethered, that struck out further to the edges. More, well, cosmic.
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