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First Listen: Jolie Holland, 'Wine Dark Sea'

Jolie Holland's new album, <em>Wine Dark Sea</em>, comes out May 20.
Courtesy of the artist
Jolie Holland's new album, Wine Dark Sea, comes out May 20.

When she sings, Jolie Holland's words come out warped and slurred, the notes bent sideways and raw at the edges. When she first emerged as a solo artist a decade ago, Holland set that eccentric delivery against dustily barren old-time arrangements that often made her sound as if she were echoing out of a transistor radio many decades ago. But these days, on the new Wine Dark Sea, she sets it against low, sullenly rumbling arrangements that sprawl and wander ambitiously across the sounds of blues, rock, jazz and soul.

Holland still operates alongside a loping, old-timey shuffle in spots (as she does in "Route 30"), but she also makes sturdy stops in vintage soul (a cover of Joe Tex's "The Love You Save"), midtempo blues ("Palm Wine Drunkard"), atmospheric slow-burns ("I Thought It Was the Moon") and surprisingly aggressive rock ("Dark Days"). Guitars burble and scream, while horns and pianos drift in and out of a sound that lands halfway between dusty rural Americana and grimy New York art-rock.

As such, Holland is that rare performer whose reach extends in many directions and dimensions without sacrificing her distinct core identity. Across eras and genres, tempos and tendencies, she sounds exactly like Jolie Holland and no one else.

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)