Julia Holter’s sound constantly shifts reference points, so it would be hard to claim that it is “distinctive”; this implies a certain level of predictability. However, it is, at any given moment, nearly impossible to liken to anyone else’s. The singer/composer’s work combines an erudite singer-songwriter sensibility with elements of 20th-century classical/electroacoustic music and millennial “bedroom pop,” and her latest, Loud City Song, demonstrates a significant change in the scope of her arrangements, featuring the densest tracks she has released to date.
The songs are often bolstered by a brassy chamber orchestra, which helps to dramatize the album’s title in sound. On “Maxim’s II,” for instance, an avant-jazz sax duet builds into a frenzied coda in which all members of the ensemble explore the outer limits of their instruments’ ranges and textural capabilities. At moments like these, Holter’s voice shifts inflection drastically, moving from intoned whispers into near-Björkian pealing.
Other tracks are more subdued but no less elaborate; the album’s second single “In The Green Wild,” for instance, is equal parts Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, Big Science and lilting new wave. The album also features some of the gentlest moments in Holter’s catalogue: plaintive art songs “World” and “He’s Running Through My Eyes.” “Hello Stranger” finds Holter delivering surprisingly soulful vocal melismas à la Christine McVie or Laura Nyro.
Loud City Song evades easy interpretation, and takes shape only after repeated listens. It will alienate some fans of 2012′s Ekstasis who’d prefer a record with fewer fits and starts, or one with more immediately hummable melodies. Despite these probable objections, Loud City Song is Holter’s finest work to date, and one of the most ambitious and innovative pop music releases of this year.