Julia Holter – review

Cecil Sharp House, London
Both pristine and deranged, Julia Holter drapes herself in mystery and transforms herself when she takes to the stage

Some performers regard the stage as merely the place they're playing out their constantly extraordinary life for the next 90 minutes – Diamanda Galas, say, or Freddie Mercury. And for others, like Julia Holter, it's somewhere to become completely different. Her between-song banter is all Valley Girl sweetness and grateful platitudes: one romantic aphorism is so junior-high juvenile it cracks her and her cellist up when they realise what she's said. But her performances are variously pristine and deranged, on oblique, ahistorical songs of universal human themes.

She visits material across all three of her albums: Tragedy, an impressionistic take on a Euripides play; Ekstasis, a collection of bedroom pop songs; and the exceptional Loud City Song, released this week, which explores a dream-state Paris full of gossip, violence and love. She opens with its opening track, World, a fine example of a recurrent Holter mood: a sort of Julee Cruise-style postmodern crooning, using the tropes of girl groups but from the other side of the looking glass. Her cover of Barbara Lewis's Hello Stranger is another, the guy ropes of rhythm section and groove all cut to leaving it drifting in mid-air.

While these are beautiful, she's at her strongest when inverting lounge-pop forms with her unusual band: the cellist is joined by a violinist and saxophonist, and her drummer Corey Fogel is excellent, a droll Jim Belushi type who languidly uses cool-jazz brushes before veering off his rhythmic axis, letting songs crumble around him. On the superb cocktail-shuffle This Is a True Heart they're polite and calcified, but on Four Gardens they switch into a Celtic reel, and create an almighty chaos on Maxim's II. Holter plays piano, and the clarity of her voice paradoxically enhances the mystery of her songs – before she breaks into a smile at the end of each, telling us how fortunate she is like a beloved homecoming queen.

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Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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