Deborah Holland: The Book of Survival
by George Graham
(Gadfly Records 257 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/06/99)
Stardom in the commercial pop music world is both fickle and ephemeral. Who gets to be well-known or to have that hit always defies any predictability. And once a person enjoys a degree of public recognition, that it's as likely as not to be, as Andy Warhol described it, "fifteen minutes of fame." In this day and age with the major record companies being part of multi-national media conglomerates, stockholders demand a quick return, so if an artist or group does not go platinum on their first album, they are likely to be dropped within months, rather than being given any kind of a chance to develop a career.
This week we have a fine album by an exemplary singer-songwriter who had her proverbial fifteen minutes of fame, but continues to make excellent music under lights that are not quite so bright. She is Deborah Holland, and her latest CD is called The Book of Survival.
Deborah Holland's brush with commercial stardom came in the early 1990s when she was a member of the trio Animal Logic, whose other two members were already quite illustrious: drummer Stewart Copeland of the Police, and bassist Stanley Clarke, who came to fame with Chick Corea's Return to Forever fusion band, and who has had several albums of his own. Animal Logic was an interesting combination: Clarke's funky and jazzy influence, Copeland's sleek rhythms, and a sound that relied on synthesizers without being very dance oriented. Ms. Holland herself brought an appealingly airy vocal style together with thoughtful songs that could still be appreciated by pop fans. Animal Logic released two albums, did the a worldwide tour, and a number of network television appearances, but the group was perhaps too sophisticated for the commercial pop world, and the members went their separate ways.
Since then, Ms. Holland has released two solo albums including a fascinating collection of depression-era songs given unusual arrangements, she has written music for several films and settled into a position as a full-time professor of music at California State University at Los Angeles.
Now Ms. Holland has released The Book of Survival on the folk-oriented Gadfly label, and I suppose that stylistically, folk is not far from where this CD lies. There are no electric guitars, and the songs are thoughtful and particularly literate -- Ms. Holland's lyrics are a model of grammar, syntax and vocabulary, while still remaining poetic. She takes up some of the familiar song topics like personal relationships, and also less common themes, such as a friendship between former political leaders. But she can also write a pop melody with the best of them, and her vocals are as attractive as ever.
Ms. Holland is joined on the album by a small group which includes bassist Bob Mair, percussionist Danny Frankel, who rarely plays a full drum set, and multi-instrumentalist Craig Eastan who is heard on violin, Dobro, mandolin and slide guitar. The CD's engineer and co-producer with Ms. Holland, Rick Krizman, plays some keyboards, and the singer-songwriter duo Lowen and Navarro puts in a guest appearance on one track doing backing vocals. The group's sound is rather intimate with acoustic instrumentation dominating, but still has some rock and pop influence, something which is emphasized by recording's mix.
The CD gets under way with a piece that sums up this album's interesting dichotomy. Weak at Heart is a kind philosophical set of lyrics woven into an attractive pop melody served up with a very folky acoustic backing with fiddle and Dobro. <<>>
Similar is another fine set of lyrics with folky instrumentation, It's Hard to Be a Human in the Universe. It features some help from Lowen and Navarro doing the backing vocals. . <<>>
Ms. Holland switches to piano for the title track The Book of Survival, a song whose tune could easily fit into the context of Animal Logic. The words take aim at a particularly selfish character. <<>>
Deborah Holland addresses some of the larger issues on a couple of the CD's tracks. Pinochet and Margaret Thatcher is a pointed song about the friendship between former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, whose right-wing military regime is accused of torture of dissidents, and the former Conservative British Prime Minister. The arrangement hints at an afternoon tea time, making it all the more sardonic. <<>>
Another memorable set of lyrics is contained in the song Kids with Guns, which articulates the frustration many feel, trying to find some specific villain to blame for bad situation in an ambiguous world. <<>>
Without You at My Side is a more conventional love song, with almost a country twang, though the lyrics are a kind of opposite to a Nashville country -- about fidelity under difficult circumstances. And Ms. Holland's lyrical vocabulary is hardly typical of a country song. <<>>
Also showing a little country influence is Faded Red Car, a song that seems at first to be about a decrepit automobile, but it turns out to be parable for the recipient of this philippic.
The album ends with a great song for Baby Boomers at the younger end of the age range: Happy Birthday You're Turning 40. Ms. Holland gives the song a light-hearted performance that nicely suits the lyrics. <<>>
After her couple of years with the pop trio Animal Logic, a group that deserved wider recognition in the commercial music world than they got, Deborah Holland has settled into making thoughtful music for thoughtful listeners. Her newest album The Book of Survival, the third under her own name, is a great collection of intelligent songs, tastefully performed in a mostly acoustic setting, that could still have some appeal to wider audiences, given her skill in writing hummable pop melodies and her very attractive vocals. Her lyric-writing is especially notable for her range of topics, her insights into them, and her exemplary use of the language.
Sonically, I'll give The Book of Survival about a B. The recording and mastering give the mostly acoustic arrangements a kind of in-your-face sound more reminiscent of rock, which in some cases, I think, that takes away from the songs. The sonic processing detracts from the music's ebb and flow, apparently in a misguided attempt to sound as loud as a rock album. Some of the subtlety of the performance was lost in the process. But it still rewards a good stereo system.
Out of the commercial limelight, Ms. Holland remains active with her teaching and writing for films. This new album shows her at the top of her songwriting form, in an appealing, mostly acoustic setting that will find its audience among the people most likely to appreciate her music in the first place -- fans of articulate acoustic singer-songwriters. And in this context, the album is a delight.
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