High wire act
Another electrifying blast of political exorcism and spiritual redemption from the American South’s septuagenarian survivor hero. By Andrew Perry.
Lonnie Holley ★★★★ Oh Me Oh My JAGJAGUWAR. CD/DL/LP
AN EXTRAORDINARY multi-disciplinary artist storied for his deprived upbringing in 1950s Alabama, Holley, now 73 and resident in Atlanta, Georgia, has been a key trailblazer for improvised music since making his recording debut on two visionary early-2010s albums for Dust To Digital.
There, as with his visual art, the self-taught pianist collaged sound in-the-moment, while voicing meditations on a childhood of prejudice and neglect, on earthly transience, and the human spirit’s indestructibility.
In the years following his ‘discovery’, Holley has collaborated widely, with a cast list ranging from Julia Holter and Daniel Lanois through to Animal Collective and Laraaji. As his star has risen within the alt-community, so has his political vehemence increased (see the raging I Woke Up In A Fucked-Up America off 2018’s MITH), and his musical palette broadened.
On BrokEn MIrror: A SElfiE REflECtIon, 2021’s pulsating team-up with Virginian blue-eyed soulman Matthew E White, the most apposite reference was Miles Davis’s On The Corner, but
Oh Me Oh My, finally, is an attempt to present this hugely connective arriviste in a more marketable, mainstream context.
His fourth LP proper was overseen by Jacknife Lee, a widely experienced producer whose CV includes U2 and The Killers, and it duly packages Holley’s spiralling free-associative craft as 11 bite-sized chunks across 50 minutes, each reined in under the six-minute mark.
Holley’s skronkier-leaning fanbase may feel, on first listen, that he’s had his wings clipped of the extemporised liberty of, say, the 25-minute Planet Earth And Otherwheres off 2012’s Just
BEForE MusIC. They may even suspect he’s being gentrified for radio consideration.
On Oh Me, Oh My, Holley’s joined by reclusive star guest and fellow denizen of the Peach State, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe intones the track’s title balefully throughout, while Holley himself digs deep into memories of how “grandmama used to be down on her knees”, his voice rising to a pained growl auspiciously reminiscent of another of America’s great on-the-fly singspeaking sufferers, Suicide’s Alan Vega.
Where previous records have naturally employed electric and acoustic jazz instrumentation, here that hovering synth-washed atmosphere which dominates 2020s music creeps in, notably for further guest spots from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and a keening Sharon Van Etten, pitching Oh Me Oh My’s second half into a mood of haunting gravitas.
On side one, by contrast, two appearances from Moor Mother’s Camae Ayewa – an avant-jazz poet whose notion of Black Quantum Futurism surely resonated with Holley – inject a fabulously funky cosmic swing in the ballpark of Sun Ra’s SpACE Is THE PlACE.
With Caspar Brötzmann Massaker-style improv-rock also detonating on Alabama cruelty exorcism Mount Meigs, you really do have no idea what’s coming next. In that regard, it’s another uniquely memorable record, encapsulating its creator’s restless spirit.