“Now, for a happy song,” Julia Holter said after she finished playing the melodramatic “Betsy on the Roof.” “Well, it’s actually not happy at all. It just sounds happy. It’s more of a disruption or frustration.”
She was introducing her next song, “Everytime Boots,” which its jolly beat masks the glum mood from its lyrics that concern a fading relationship. And Holter’s show at the Irenic overall followed similarly to “Everytime Boots” and its clash of fascinating contrasts between the disconcerting and blissful.
The band’s cover of Dionne Warwick’s 1962 single “Don’t Make Me Over” in the set provided a good entry point for the uninitiated. Holter’s ornate songs nod to the classic era of pop, such as Warwick’s, when a big band and moony strings tugged at your heartstrings. The cover fit right in with her other wide-eyed songs in her catalog.
Except, Holter’s take on pop music of yore is crooked at the corners. She and her band never let the audience fully at ease during their performance of “In the Green Wild” from Loud City Songs. Holter gestured delightfully as if she sang lyrics straight from a theater script. But catchy as her lyrics sounded, the viola and bass set a rather uncomfortable mood in the room like you were being constantly watched from a distance.
While her older songs filled the venue with some uneasy air, the newer tracks from Have You in My Wilderness felt like a sigh of relief. The music loosened up to invite a more whimsical mood. “Feel You” and its heart-warming strings were one of the many that charmed the crowd.
However, just like the times before, the peak moments of the new songs hit when the music became almost too much to bare. While “Silhouette” started light and playful with a slick bass line to boot, the music unfurled into an overwhelming stack of sound toward the last third. The snowballing finale seemed especially apt for a coda of a song about a woman impatiently waiting for the return of her lover.
The quiet songs from Have You in My Wilderness proved how poignant the songs can be. It was a bit emotional to see the real-life Holter herself call out “I’m standing on the ground, Betsy/ my arms stretched out, looking up/ won’t you please tell me the answer” during “Betsy on the Roof.” That feeling of burning desire inside the music made Have You in My Wilderness one of the best albums of 2015. Witnessing those feelings being played out on stage made the music even more precious.
Holter and her band initially exited the stage after “City Appearing,” the melancholy closer of Loud City Songs. Though it was an appropriate curtain call for a set with a lyric like “everyone has left early without a hat,” it would’ve been admittedly one gloomy way to say goodbye.
It was a relief, then, to have the band return to play “Sea Called Me Home” for the encore. From the harpsichord to the whistle to the viola solo in lieu of a sax player, the band’s last song made sure the night ended on a bright note.