Lonnie Holley - National Freedom Music Album Reviews

In a 2014 session with the late Richard Swift, the Alabama sculptor and blues man builds on the foundation of American roots music, reshaping his influences into works that transcend genre.

Experimental blues man Lonnie Holley is one of America’s great alchemists. As a visual artist and sculptor, he treats found objects and household materials—rocking chairs, padlocks, a charred television—with their entire history in mind. He respects their past as functioning tools of the mundane, but honors their spiritual and philosophical value as vessels of memory. As a songwriter, the Alabama native similarly builds rich compositions on the foundation of American roots music, but reshapes them into works that are beyond genre. Like his sculptures fashioned from rudimentary components, his songs are often arranged rather simply on a handful of familiar instruments. On his new EP National Freedom—recorded in 2014 at the late Richard Swift’s studio of the same name—Holley invokes a mythical atmosphere from his very human surroundings.
Throughout National Freedom, Holley roams from searing blues to downtempo dub to freeform wanderings on piano. Nothing is particularly beholden to a traditional structure; instead, his compositions sound more like fever dreams of songs—streams of consciousness unimpeded by the architecture of the waking mind. The sparse “In It Too Deep” features just Holley’s voice and kalimba; the plucked instrument, made from a small wooden base and metal tines, sounds like a musical baby mobile twisting above a crib. “Just want to stick my hand out,” Holley sings, “to grab ahold to something extraordinary.” Holley’s philosophy revolves around “the beauty of noticing all,” and in this song he seems to be both the baby marvelling at the dangling mobile and the man who built the nursery all at once.

Opener “Crystal Doorknob” is more tethered to the earth, but it possesses a similar sense of wonder as “In It Too Deep” and its piano-based companion “So Many Rivers (The First Time).” While those tracks are airy and delicate, “Crystal Doorknob” is smeared with soil. Holley’s voice is gravelled, and Marshall Ruffin’s electric guitar sounds born of the swamplands. The loping, repetitive instrumentation supports Holley’s imagery: He recalls walking through a dense forest, where he stumbles upon an ornate door standing alone in the middle of it, without explanation. The door doesn’t lead anywhere, or solve any preexisting mystery. It’s just there, and that’s enough.

For all of Holley’s contented musings and observations—some of which sound downright Buddhist in their detachment—the best song on National Freedom is drowned in longing. On “Like Hell Broke Away,” Holley mourns lost love, singing the most anguished of blues ballads. His woman has left him, and he laments her on three multi-tracked vocal channels: He screeches incoherently, blubbers and growls, and accompanies himself with booming doo-wop backing vocals that sound like perfectly timed sobs. In addition to being the boldest, rawest entry on the EP, it is the richest, musically speaking. Holley commands a whirring Melatron, and Ben Sollee’s cello ups the drama. The synthesis of all these parts mimics the inferno of a fresh heartbreak—even if you can crawl out of the bubbling lava, it still takes a while for the fires to die and the smoke to clear. Unlike many of Holley’s songs, “Like Hell Broke Away” is rooted in an eminently relatable human experience, which might explain its strength. Like his sculptures, it takes the familiar and makes it beautifully strange.
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Lonnie Holley - National Freedom Music Album Reviews Lonnie Holley - National Freedom Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Monday, July 13, 2020 Rating:

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