Julia Holter loves fresh air. She drifts in its swirling nothingness, hoping to land somewhere. The Los Angeles singer distills atmospheric beauty into oblique pop songs, reaching a high point with September’s “Have You In My Wilderness,” Holter’s best album to date.
Built on lush arrangements and observant lyrics, “Have You in My Wilderness” thrives thanks to a simplified sound that doesn’t sacrifice her creative voice. “Feel You,” the album’s lead single, recalled Elton John’s large orchestral resonance, and “Sea Calls Me Home” felt teleported from late-’60s Beatles, yet Holter successfully borrowed from those eras without recreating the past. Hers is a rare combination of jazz, soul and theatrics — artistic, heartfelt and voyeuristic.
Perhaps on purpose, “Sea Calls Me Home” came at the very end of Holter’s Thursday night show at Rock & Roll Hotel, a full hour after she lulled the crowd with expansive sonic breakdowns and shape-shifting ballads. Holter’s music is meant to be savored, to be unpacked slowly. It’s full of gentle nudges that calmly wash over you as her words hover along the periphery.
Holter’s mesmerizing D.C. gig leaned heavily on alternative jazz. On “In The Green Wild,” a standout from the 2013 album “Loud City Song,” she and her trio moved from upbeat pop to classical strings without any hiccups. These selections felt disjointed in good ways, which — with a live drummer, upright bassist and violinist — gave Holter’s show a smoky lounge feel, like something you’d hear across town at Bohemian Caverns.
Other cuts contained classical chimes, giving Holter’s catalogue a symphonic twist. As the show went on, you could feel certain icons emerge, even if Holter’s voice remained at the fore. We heard shades of Freddie Mercury. On “Betsy on the Roof,” vestiges of David Bowie appeared.
Near the very end of her set, on a gorgeous rendition of “Don’t Make Me Over,” Holter tweaked her voice to emanate a nostalgic R&B vibe, punctuating a night of vast creativity, even if it was tough to pinpoint exactly what it was. Holter’s art is meant to be a light caress, a subtle come-hither. Then just like that, it — and she — vanished, back into the wind with no clear destination. Holter prefers it this way.