I know a few things, but I don’t know much about Estonia. Here’s everything I know: I know it’s a Baltic state, a former Socialist republic. It’s the homeland of Tommy Cash, a viral rapper who’s made some really weird videos that I like a lot. The kids in the movie Encino Man tried to pass off their unfrozen-caveman buddy as an exchange student from Estonia. (See, Pauly Shore’s character was named “Stoney,” so it was a pun.) Up until last week, that was it. That was literally all I knew. But now I know that Estonia has also produced one of the best, wooziest, prettiest Americana records I’ve heard in a long time. This, to me, makes about as much sense as a band of unfrozen cavemen producing one of the best, wooziest, prettiest Americana records I’ve heard in a long time. But why should everything make sense? Why should anything make sense?
Holy Motors, the Estonian band in question, took their name from a 2012 French movie that takes pains to make no sense at all. The plot of Holy Motors is this: The actor Denis Lavant rides around in a towncar, doing various jobs. In one job, he’s doing motion-capture work for what looks like a psychedelic video game. In another, he’s a hairy monster who kidnaps a model while the music from the original Godzilla plays. He’s an old woman who begs for change. He’s a Chinese gangster, sent to murder someone who looks exactly like him. He’s a father picking up a daughter from a very sad party. At every job, he builds a new identity out of clothing and makeup. It’s hard to say who the real him is, if there even is a real him. Eva Mendes shows up at one point. So does Kylie Minogue. As a deeply basic movie fan who enjoys things like narrative consistency, I could barely watch Holy Motors, even though I loved individual sequences like the accordion scene. Some film-nerd friends think it’s a masterpiece. So it goes.
I wonder whether the members of Holy Motors feel like the guy in the car, trying on a whole new role, or whether it feels natural to be from Estonia, making music that sounds like some mysterious windblown version of the American west. Holy Motors’ music is based, at least in the abstract, on American folk and country music. But it’s based on a version of American folk and country music so removed, so altered by time and distance and different generations of influence, that it’s all but unrecognizable. The band plays everything through heavy reverb, and they keep a blank, languid expressionlessness to their sound. The twang of their guitars is magnificent, but it’s a shimmery twang, not an immediate or physical twang. The obvious point of comparison is Mazzy Star, but there’s also a lot of Cowboy Junkies or Low or even Lee Hazlewood in what they do. Their sound is a rapturously pretty one, one that fills a room and makes everything in it feel somehow slow and mythic.
The band recorded a previous 7″ with the Men’s Ben Greenberg. For Slow Sundown, their full-length debut, Carson Cox, of Merchandise and Priests, served as producer. But while their collaborators may come from the American DIY scuzz-rock tradition, there is no grime to Holy Motors. Their sound is pristine and dreamlike, all empty space and immaculately muffled intertwining guitar tones. Vocalist Eliann Tulve sings everything in a husky deadpan, her flat intonation almost obscuring her accent. It’s music for smoky movie bars that don’t exist in real life — luxurious, sprawling opium-den music of the highest order. And even though an album like Slow Sundown really builds itself from the sounds of my own country, refracted and played back to me at a fascinating remove, it mostly just makes me want to go to Estonia.
Slow Sundown is out 2/9 on Wharf Cat.
Other albums of note out this week:
• The as-yet-unheard Kendrick Lamar-curated Black Panther: The Album.
• MGMT’s psychedelic neo-progger Little Dark Age.
• Franz Ferdinand’s strutting postpunk comeback Always Ascending.
• Palm’s giddy math-rocker Rock Island.
• Hovvdy’s lo-fi slowcore swoon Cranberry.
• Son Lux’s grandly expansive Brighter Wounds.
• Susanna’s tingly folker Go Dig My Own Grave.
• Tool/Mastodon side project Legend Of The Seagullmen’s self-titled debut.
• SHIRT’s thoughtfully tough New York rap debut Pure Beauty.
• Jerry David DeCicca’s melancholy folk-rocker Time The Teacher.
• The Gaslight Anthem frontman Brian Fallon’s solo album Sleepwalkers.
• Dashboard Confessional’s sensitive emo return Crooked Shadows.