20th November | Anson Rooms

I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I went into Sunday’s gig with little to no knowledge of support act Circuit Des Yeux; I was in attendance primarily for Julia Holter, whose four albums have become firm favourites over the past few years. As such, I was more than pleasantly surprised by the gutsy, volatile, emotionally arresting performance by Haley Fohr, the figure behind Circuit Des Yeux.

Alone onstage bathed in a violent red glow, accompanied only by her acoustic guitar, Fohr cuts something of an enigmatic figure to the sparsely populated but respectful audience. Fohr’s bluesy cyclical finger picking style and lyrically ambiguous outpourings might not be to everyone’s taste, but such was the intensity of her display here, that you would have to be a stone to have been left unmoved. Fohr’s clearly a talented songwriter, but it’s no insult to say that her secret weapon is her, quite literally, extraordinary voice.

Over the course of four astonishing albums, LA native Julia Holter has delivered some of the most literate, intelligent, and downright beautiful music these ears have heard in recent memory. Most recent long-player, Have You In My Wilderness was her best set yet, expertly balancing the more avant-garde/experimental instincts of her earlier work, with classic songwriting chops reminiscent of Scott 4 era Scott Walker or prime Kate Bush. And Kate Bush is a key touchstone here, for Holter’s voice throughout tonight’s stellar performance often brings Bush to mind, specifically her expressiveness and tendency towards dramatic delivery.

To stay with Holter’s vocal abilities, this gig is something of a showcase for her ‘pure as driven snow’, cut glass crystal tones. At times she seems to be putting on accents, or singing in character, again another nod to Kate Bush perhaps. But it’s the sheer variety of her vocal abilities that strikes me when viewing her live, ranging from deep, smoky often husky confessional hues, to soft sing-speaking, and her impressively elastic mid to higher registers – all of which would add up to nought if the music wasn’t up to the challenge.

Predictably however, the music is wonderful throughout, as are the players. With Holter an always engaging focus point, front and centre on keys, and a band comprised of drums, double bass, viola and saxophone, the vibe is relaxed and natural. There’s a laid-back, jazzy feel to the set up here, and the band appear to be very comfortable in each other’s presence, which adds to the almost jam session like ambience of the evening. Songs are often deconstructed from their recorded equivalents, with extended sections made up of tonal washes, pure unadulterated melody, or sometimes cacophonous noise and dissonance. At times it is hard to comprehend how the whole thing is hanging together at all, yet such is the level of musicality and trust the band create for one another, that miraculously, it always does.

Being a spectator here tonight sometimes feels akin to observing someone paint a picture, but only being able to see parts of the canvas, or single brushstrokes out of context. It is only when you see the whole that you can appreciate the form and beauty held within. This music is expressionistic, and occasionally abstract, but always rooted in gorgeous melody and considered songcraft, such that it is never “difficult” or unappealing despite its apparent archness. Holter and the band often flirt playfully with dissonance and “wrong” notes, the violist and double bass players in particular, producing creaks and scraping noises from their instruments, while the saxophone trills or squeals in reply.

It’s hard to pick out standout tracks, but ‘Hello Stranger’, from 2013’s Loud City Song, is a delight, all melodious strings and deft, nuanced cymbal work, gradually building up to heart swelling proportions of beauty. And Holter proves she can do pop music too, best evidenced on set closer ‘Sea Calls Me Home’, which takes no time at all to get straight to its pounding chorus of “I can’t swim. Its lucidity. So clear!”. Like much on display tonight, it’s an intensely pleasurable feeling to hear such wonderful music being created anew in front of you, and it was a privilege to have been present.

Check out the live video for ‘Hello Stranger’ below.