Graded on a Curve:
Holy Motors,
Horse

Although Holy Motors hails from Tallinn, Estonia, their music is perfectly suited for a road trip in a gas-guzzling boat of a car roaring westward across the expanse of the USA. Featuring songwriter and guitarist Lauri Ruas with vocals by songwriter Eliann Tulve, the band, formed in 2013 when Tulve was just 16 years old, is completed by guitarist Gert Gutmann and drummer Caspar Salo. Their sophomore full-length Horse continues to hone a shoegazing, twangy, Mazzy Star-ish sound to productive result. The record’s out now on vinyl, digipak compact disc, and digital through Wharf Cat Records of Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

The Bandcamp bio for Holy Motor’s offers that they are a “dark twang & reverb band from a nonexistent movie.” But as others have observed, they share a name with an actual film, specifically the most recent completed feature, from back in 2012, by the great (and very underrated) French auteur Leos Carax. Additionally, Holy Motors list amongst their achievements a gig in the support spot for a screening of Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 film Mystery Train.

Listening to Holy Motors’ latest while contemplating the allusions in their bio to cowboys and cowgirls and the old West, I’d say that double billing them with Mystery Train was a smart move, as Jarmusch sets his film in Memphis, TN but tells a series of stories about foreign visitors to the city. This complements Holy Motors’ adoration and embodiment of bygone American lore; the band furthermore cite Terrence Malick’s Badlands and Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas as favorites.

Often described as a neo-noir, Badlands is set at the turn of the 1960s in the titular region of the USA and was the first feature from perhaps American cinema’s prime transcendentalist, which is to say that while American by birth, Malick is unconstrained by borders. Paris, Texas, which can be described as the unfolding mystery of how a relationship came to be broken (complete with a child), also features scenes of Harry Dean Stanton walking across dusty landscapes in the Lone Star State.

Like Badlands, Wenders’ film is about innocence lost, about myths and how they intersect with memory. This may all seem a little overboard in reference to a solid and very likeable if not exactly groundbreaking neo-psych album, but the connections are sturdy. Holy Motors thrives as an Eastern European reaction to the Paisley Underground, a genre-scene almost exclusively based in the western region of the USA, and after time spent with Horses and the band’s cinematic intentions, I can’t shake thinking of films set in the USA, films about the USA, made by directors from other cultures.

The list isn’t long, but it includes Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970) and Wong Kar-wai’s terribly underrated My Blueberry Nights (2007), a film that resonates particularly well in this case as Holy Motors’ “Endless Night” would’ve been a superb fit for its soundtrack (peppered as it was by songs from Cat Power).

Holy Motors has been spoken of as exuding a certain melancholy, and that’s not off-target, but on “Endless Night,” which is the gem of its album, they take restlessness as their subject, the kind of restlessness brought on by having something slip through your fingers or just linger frustratingly outside of your grasp. It’s exactly the kind of scenario that we’ve seen played-out numerous times in the movies.

“Endless Night” is also the second song in a trifecta, with opener “Country Church” and “Midnight Cowboy,” that establish Holy Motors as blooming from the fertile soil of Mazzy Star. Obviously, this is due to the vocal prowess of Tulve, though I wouldn’t call her imitative. Also, Holy Motors’ guitar edge gets closer to ’90s neo-psych, as heard in “Matador” and in the largely instrumental closer “Life Valley.”

Anton Newcombe has recently worked with the band, which is notable, as the guy-gal duet “Road Stars” brought to mind the Brian Jonestown Massacre instigator’s work with Emmanuelle Seigner in the group L’épée. Both “Come On, Slowly” and “Trouble” are loaded with post-rockabilly guitar moves more reminiscent of the US South than the West, and this moving around the map is welcome.

In closing, I’ll add that a recent photo of Holy Motors (found on their Bandcamp page) capture them as exactly the kind of group an indie filmmaker in the late ’80s-early ’90s, e.g. Richard Linklater, Alison Anders, Hal Hartley, Aki Kaurismäki, or maybe even Jarmusch himself, might’ve envisioned as the subject of a feature; we’re talking leather and denim jackets, a large brimmed hat and a western shirt with embroidered roses. The tidy contents of Horse drive home that Holy Motors have the songs to match these cinematic qualities.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+ 

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