THE UK’s LEADING INDEPENDENT COUNTRY MUSIC MAGAZINE
Well-established US singer-songwriter now stands on guard for Thee
What do you do when your life’s turned upside down—you’re suddenly living in another country, your family’s been split in two and you’re torn between what you’ve lost and the promise of what you’ve gained? If you sing for your living, you write about it. All of which pretty much sums up VANCOUVER—Deborah Holland’s fourth solo album and first celebrating her new home on the other side of the US border. The first thing you’re impacted by on this disc is the rich quality of Holland’s voice. Some may recall her tenure with Stewart Copeland and Stanley Clarke in the somewhat futuristic and sadly short-lived, pop-fusion supergroup, Animal Logic, in 1989-1991. Holland retains all her vocal power from those heady days but, with four solo records under her belt, she’s a self-made singer-songwriter who’s busting to get out. And so she should be.
This 12-track release ripples with highlights and any seams between smart covers and her own seductive originals remain invisible, given the quality of Holland’s songwriting. As an autobiographical concept, it’s equal parts funny and sad—yet entirely lovable, if not downright addictive. Canada’s Tourism department would do well to embrace her I Want To Be A Canadian—half-hilarious except for the fact she’s making a true statement about her newfound home. Frankly any attempt to set Canada and the title track, Vancouver, to rhyme merits a medal. Yet, Holland’s strengths also include her smart, incisive (and oft-humorous) lyrics—a writing parallel in Jill Sobule, perhaps—with equally bright, hook-bearing arrangements. On occasion, the lyrics overpower the message but you’d be hard-pressed to find a clunker here. Aside from both Canadian and Vancouver, exceptional tracks include That Ain’t Love, which bristles with energy— with its killer chorus and hint of Dobro, showcasing her vocals in their brightest light. Likewise, her paean to California is built on a great chorus and includes a keeper high note you’ll not soon forget. There’s a wide range of moods here—as you’d expect with the highs and lows associated with her predicament, but somehow everything works nicely. Of special note is her refreshing cover of the potentially tired Beatles’ Norwegian Wood—reworked with brilliant guitar and mandolin accompaniment, the song receives a serious facelift, serving as the ultimate complement to the exceptional quality of Holland’s powerful—and ever-elastic—voice. Musical backup varies with the song but clear acoustic guitar and her lush voice fall out of the album’s smooth yet relatively lean production— the strongest takeaway any singer could hope for. The album closes with an odd fit of a track that seems an unwitting tribute to Kirsty MacColl and the Pogues in Lucky So And So, yet it’s another demonstration of Holland’s diverse range of talents.
Eric G. Thom
reviewed by AMERICANA MUSIC NEWS Sun209.com
Jun 10, 2013
By Paul T. Mueller
Deborah Holland took that old advice about lemons and lemonade seriously. In 2010, the singer-songwriter, who’d enjoyed considerable success as a performer and had later become a professor of music at Cal State Los Angeles, pulled up roots and moved to Canada (apparently one of her sons needed schooling that, for reasons not explained, he couldn’t get in the United States). Relocated in a cold and rainy place, financial stress, romantic difficulties – for a lot of us, that’s a recipe for deep depression, but for Holland it was inspiration for the excellent songs that make up her latest CD, Vancouver.“Songs came pouring out of me (like the rain in Vancouver),” Holland says in the liner notes. And what songs they are – funny one minute, rip-your-heart-out sad the next, full of sharp insights, skillfully written and performed. All were written by Holland except the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” which, while pleasant enough, seems a bit beside the point.
Holland’s songs cover a range of topics and styles, but as you might expect, there are strong threads of alienation and broken romance throughout. Things start off funny and bouncy with “I Wanna Be a Canadian,” a tribute to Holland’s adopted country (and to some extent an indictment of her native land), but the mood sobers quickly after that. The title track deals with the sometimes depressing realities of life in an unfamiliar place, while “California” is a homesick look back at people and things left behind. The upbeat tone of “Money” contrasts with the litany of financial struggles it describes. “That Ain’t Love” is a cautionary tale about warning signs in relationships, while “Messed Up Valentine” might be one of the sadder goodbye songs ever. From all that, the CD might sound like a bummer, but Holland’s gift for finding humor even in grim situations keeps Vancouver from devolving into a complete weepfest.
There’s more, but suffice it to say that Holland’s clear, strong voice and confident delivery shine on all 12 tracks, assistant by clean production (by Holland and Steve Wight) and excellent instrumental playing. Holland plays bass on most tracks, along with acoustic guitar and accordion, while Wight handles drums and percussion and J.P. Mourão plays electric and other guitars. Guests include Patterson Barrett on various stringed instruments and keyboards, Cidny Bullens on harmonica, and Wendy Waldman on background vocals and acoustic guitar (Holland, Bullens and Waldman together make up “folk supergroup” The Refugees; Holland was also lead singer and songwriter of Animal Logic, which also included drummer Stewart Copeland of The Police and jazz bassist Stanley Clarke).
It’s been said that there’s no art without pain, and if you need evidence, you can find it on Vancouver.
BAD GIRL ONCE…
Reviewed by Sing Out!
Buoyant, often self-deprecating humor characterizes Deborah Holland’s Bad Girl Once… from the start. “Bad Girl Once (Soccer Mom Now)” contrasts wild youth with current reality. “Song About Sex” skewers the ever-present marketing of sex. “The Violin Song” sung through the voice of a child who really hates those violin lessons is quite funny yet true. “The Theory of Relativity (It’s All Relative)” limns the perspective you need to really get yourself. Then there are the more serious ones. “Waiting for the Fire” muses about how difficult it is to find real true intimacy while “On My Way” is about how hard it is to find meaningful direction in life and cherishing the journey. The finale “Last Year (Life Is Grand)” investigates picking up the pieces and moving on from bad times to better. And there are arresting takes of “Sloop John B” and Stephan Foster’s ever-relevant “Hard Times.” The album is beautifully wrought. Deborah’s singing is glorious, her support sturdy. Technically the album is excellent with sound that nearly explodes from the speakers as it rushes to embrace the ear. Bad Girl Once… is a piquant blend of wit both sharp and knowing, keen observation and fine musicianship and recording technique. I’ve been a huge fan of Deborah Holland’s songs ever since I first encountered them in the 1980s group Animal Logic. This newest collection is Deborah at her best and most inviting.— Michael Tearson
BOOK OF SURVIVAL
Reviewed by Sing Out! – Winter 2000 Issue
First the rock singer versus folk singer thing. the boundaries have been somewhat blurred since Dylan plugged in at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 and all the rock stars started unplugging again in the last few years on MTV. The Book of Survival contains singer-songwriter material as well-penned, and well-portrayed as anything contemporary folk or rock performers are now serving up. And in a retro way, the songs are a lot less “me, me, me” and a tad more “us, us, us” than the usual fare. Maybe that’s because Holland has already been “there, there, there” and has the luxury of exploring topics she feels passionate about. I also like the fact that the album has a professional feel to it, a host of great acoustic sounds, produced with a light touch, lots of air and not overdone.The songs? If Holland’s contemporary “Faded Red Car” had been written about a horse instead of an automobile–it would be “Stewball.” Few of us muck out stables nowadays, but we do have to muck out our personal and societal metaphoric stables–and that’s what Deborah Holland does so well. It is a danger to write topical songs (remember those?). When taking on current events it is easy to sound preachy or trite. Note here. “Kids With Guns” is not trite but right, current affairs sung with pace and humanity. Even a song with a title “Pinochet And Margaret Thatcher” works and elicits a smile, as does “Happy Birthday, You’re Turning 40.” These are titles that would activate a “trite alert” warning if observed on another album. They work here because Holland possesses the heart and objectivity and talent to make even current events ache like a wry love song. It reminds me that good songs and a knowing voice have more than the power to entertain; these elements have the power to move a listener to a better place. Isn’t that what contemporary folk used to do?– Roger Deitz
BOOK OF SURVIVAL
Reviewed by Dirty Linen: Folk and World Music
Or of which to be ashamed
I just hope as you go marching through the wilderness
You’ll never change
“I’m Sorry” also takes an unexpected turn. It starts out as apology and ends up as self-paean:I am striving for perfection
Everybody’s gonna love me
I could kiss my reflection
There’s a halo right above me
A lyrical ironist to match Warren Zevon, Holland is equally gifted with melody. Her songs are bright, energetic, and roots-based, with more rock than folk to their sound. Her jazz background adds a dash of spice to the album’s arrangements, but she never goes overboard or loses sight of the listener.Holland can move you, but she seldom pushes. “Irene,” a portrait of a misguided woman (written by Holland and Jenny Yates), couldn’t be more delicate, with its mandolin-tinged accompaniment and its metaphors of breezes and birds, and the diminished chords behind the chorus play out Irene’s vulnerability and the singer’s concern for her as strongly as the lyrics do.
Best of all, Holland has a sense of humor. “Faded Red Car,” a just slightly over-the-top country waltz, uses a jalopy as a metaphor for its owner: it “has one thing you can count on/Knowing the damn thing won’t start.” Sedately funky, with Motown keyboards and Appalachian fiddle, “The End of the World” shows a rich matron preparing for doomsday with impeccable control (“I’ll say goodbye to cousin Phyllis/Just tell the gardener he should bill us.”)Holland never wastes time. Only one track on The Book of Survival tops four and a half minutes. She makes her point and then moves on. The result is an album that demands repeated listening.It’s a delight to hear a singer who wears her mind on her sleeve, yet never intimidates her listeners. As a wordsmith, Deborah Holland concerns herself with the balance between heart and mind. As an artist, she makes the balance seem effortless.–Pamela Murray Winters (Arlington, VA)
UNBOUND (The Refugees)
Reviewed by Wood and Steel
It’s no wonder that the Refugees, a folk “supergroup” formed by Wendy Waldman, Deborah Holland and Cindy Bullens, has been likened to a fe-male version of Crosby, Stills & Nash. On Unbound, the group’s debut CD, stirring lead vocals and impeccable harmonies rule the roost. All three women have stellar track records — Waldman is a hit songwriter and an accomplished producer; Holland has released several solo albums and scored songs for films and television; Bullens got her start as a backing vocalist for Elton John and has won Grammys for her recording work.Each Refugee is a strong song- writer with a distinct personality, and their collaboration yields a natural, eclectic-yet-accessible blend of music. The women play guitar, accordion, Dobro, mandolin, harmonica, dulcimer, bass and percussion, and, although they are an acoustic group, they can rock. They also bring a welcome sense of humor to the mix. Visit their website and check out the live performance video. When it comes to vocals, the Refugees are a collective powerhouse. Together, they lay down sweet harmony beds that bring to mind the Eagles (listen to “Jellico Highway”), yet each one is also a commanding and expressive lead singer. Some- times they share the lead vocal spot, masterfully weaving a multi-textured vocal tapestry. One of my favorite vocal moments lives in the title cut. Whoever nails that note to the sky at the end of the chorus absolutely slays me. That harmony line is a hook I will always eagerly anticipate.
“Stickin’ With my Baby’s Love” is a fun, upbeat tune. It’s sexy, ripe and ready for some mainstream country artist to cover and send shooting up the charts. With chops like theirs, you don’t need electric guitars and drums to rock a solid groove.
There are some familiar songs on Unbound, such as Waldman’s sultry and rollicking classic, “Fishin’ in the Dark,” which was originally covered by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The inclusion of what is probably Waldman’s best-known song, “Save the Best for Last,” was a surprise for me. The stunning three-part a cappella
introduction drew me in, and I found myself appreciating the intimate quality of the lyrics more than I ever did on hearing Vanessa Williams’ hit version.
Deborah Holland’s “(There’s a) Spy in the House of Love,” has an intriguing lyric, and a soaring, compel- ling melody. And “The Violin Song,” sung from the viewpoint of a child being forced to take violin lessons, is hilarious. Cindy Bullens’ harmonica adds appropriate wails and hiccups of desperation, while Holland’s character pleads and tries to bargain with her mom. “All My Angels” is simply beautiful. Bullens’ lead vocal is husky and emotive, and when you add the killer harmonies of her bandmates, it’s a knockout combination.
What I’m about to say is a cliché, but it can’t be helped: I am already looking forward to the next CD from the Refugees. Their debut is that good.
— Andy Robinson
Unbound (The Refugees)
Reviewed by the Metro Spirit: Augusta GA
The backwoods behind the paved roads open in a fresh new light with The Refugees’ release of “Unbound” coming in January 2009. Built upon a smooth, mountain-like blend of modern country andclassic folk sounds, the birth of this new female super group finds a sweet spot in the down home vision it offers. Composed of acclaimed solo artists Cindy Bullens, Deborah Holland and Wendy Waldman, The Refugees formed in 2007 in search of a new sound created by blending their distinct talents, voices and styles. With more than three decades in the music business, 19 solo albums and many Grammy nominations, The Refugees return in a new form combining experienced precision with passionate experimentation. The album itself is a masterpiece of Americana as a whole that should find room in any playlist, but particular songs stand out above the field of country grass they create in the melodies throughout. These songs include the smashing thrills of “Unbound” speaking to the desires in the deepest heart, the sweet soulful croon of “Stickin’ with my Baby’s Love,” and the smooth, sad, sweet tones of “Box of Broken Hearts.” Furthermore, within the haunting echo of “I Gotta Believe in Something,” listeners find a pathway into the emotional rollercoaster and passionate display characterized by the depths of connection in lifetimes spent in search of meaning, feeling, and being. Within this world of folk splendor, The Refugees offer an example of escape from the isolation of daily routines and a return to feeling and meaning within the simpler places we may all remember in our most sincere moments.- J. Edward Sumerau
Reviewed by Roots Music Report
“Harmonies both country-sweet and razor-sharp meet with a steady stream of first-rate songwriting on this exquisite set. From the haunting leadoff track, ‘Catch Me If You Can’, this trio of veteran singer-songwriters (Cindy Bullens, Deborah Holland, Wendy Waldman) dress a wide variety of moods and observations in ear-grabbing lyric sets with matching vocals.Love is frequently on their collective mind, contemplated from a range of emotional angles. Selecting standouts is no easy task because there is not one weak track in the lot here but the ballad ‘5th Of July’ is hard to get past with just one listen.
The trio’s acoustic instrumental work, enhanced by guest fiddler Sam Bush, matches the quality of the songs and singing. The first candidate for 2012’s ‘Best’ has arrived.
– Duane Verh
Reviewed by Freight Train Boogie
Guest fiddler Sam Bush and drummer Scott Babcock supplement the sturdy Americana sound of The Refugees’ Three featuring the trio of Cindy Bullens (guitars, mandolin, harmonica), Deborah Holland (bass, accordion, piano), and Wendy Waldman (guitars, Dobro). While the three singing and songwriting women have years of experience (with 19 solo albums between them!), The Refugees is a Los Angeles-based collaboration formed in 2007. The distinctive group has spun many heads with their keen ability to build upon each musician’s strengths revolving around songwriting, instrumental prowess, vocal blend, humor and showmanship.A former backup vocalist for Elton John, Cindy Bullens has also written songs, scores and musicals. A prolific writer, Deborah Holland was the singer and songwriter for Animal Logic, and she currently teaches music at Vancouver, B.C.’s Langara College. Wendy Waldman’s band Bryndle debuted in the 1970s, and she’s also found success as a soloist, songwriter and music producer. Their current aptitude and craftsmanship are fully displayed in the band’s repertoire influenced by folk, blues, country and rock.
The cooperative effort may be best displayed in those five songs jointly written and arranged by the ladies (Catch Me If You Can, I Don’t Care At All, 5th of July, Rosalinda, Every Body and Soul). At the same time, tune into each songwriter’s moxie and individualism in their self-penned numbers such as Waldman’s “Can’t Stop Now,” Bullens’ “January Sky,” and Holland’s “My Favorite Joe.” The only song from public domain, “Green RockyRoad,” has been recorded many including Emmylou Harris, and it’s a perfect cover for a trio that emphasizes sumptuous vocals. It’s a lean song, in a spare setting, to recount the story of Little Miss Jane runnin’ to the ball.
The Refugees’ vocals are sure to have the same impact on you. Building their regional fan base for several years, I think it’s time for The Refugees to put a bigger dent in the public consciousness. Three is an impressive effort with considerable vigor and downright brawn. Without too many gimmicks, the music is clever. With a nice final hook, they get their groove on in their closing statements about finding “a way to follow the dream” and “time to put a message on the line.” It could be the story of their lives, careers and music. I’m not sure exactly what The Refugees are fleeing from, but I can tell you that their supple music will find a home on my CD player.
– Joe Ross
THE PANIC IS ON: SONGS FROM THE GREAT DEPRESSION
Reviewed by Folk Fire
Elsewhere in this issue I reviewed the “Anthology of American Folk Music”, a reissue of classic recordings from 1927-1932. At the end of that review, I expressed the hope that it might inspire contemporary performers to rework traditional material in new styles. Deborah Holland’s new recording, “The Panic is On”, takes blues, old-time and popular songs written during the hard times of the 1930s and places them in undiluted 1990s settings. In doing so, she creates a brilliant example of how such re-workings can make moving and powerful music.Holland (the former lead vocalist with the jazz-fusion group Animal Logic) is an astonishing singer — expressive, rich, and with a perfect sense of the nuances of each song. Her choice of material is impeccable: Blind Alfred Reed’s “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” stands with E. Y. Harburg’s “Buddy Can You Spare a Dime” and the Carter Family’s “Worried Man Blues”, along with lesser-known pieces from sources as disparate as blues singer Victoria Spivey and the musical “Gold Diggers of 1933″.
And the arrangements are stunning. Holland and her collaborators (only two of them) have completely re-imagined each song from the bottom up, changing tempo, phrasing, chords, etc.. When I say “from the bottom up,” I mean that literally. The only instruments on most songs are electric bass and various percussion pieces. The production is very contemporary, with vocal effects, loops, etc.. It all works. There’s not a note wasted, not a phrase that isn’t carefully thought out. In some ways this recording reminds me of Fairport Convention’s “Liege and Lief;” the settings of these songs from folk and popular traditions are ground-breaking and imaginative, and although they sound utterly different from the originals, they are equally valid and meaningful.
“The Panic is On” is on Gadfly Records, and it deserves to sell a million copies. The songs are from our parents’ era, but as the singer notes, they “speak…of people with low paying jobs and people with no jobs at all. They speak of the homeless and the high cost of food, clothing and medical care. If you change a few numbers after the dollar signs, there’s not a song in the collection that couldn’t have been written today.