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Underground

By Caitlin E. Curren, Globe Correspondent

April 13, 2007

On a recent Thursday evening, on the Red Line platform at Park Street station, a sizable crowd of people slowed their pace, paused their iPods, and congregated in front of Lily Holbrook, a petite woman with auburn hair and a friendly face. They were lured by her intimately sparse folk rendition of the Cure's "Just Like Heaven." Some of the group ignored the Alewife- and Quincy-bound trains that came roaring through, opting to listen and wait for the next ones. As Holbrook switched to Ozzy Osbourne's "Mama, I'm Coming Home," then an original song, "Running Into Walls," two girls clad in sweatpants and sneakers watched from across the tracks, then crossed over for a closer view. Passersby shouted that Holbrook should be on "American Idol," or that she sounded like folk-turned-pop star Jewel -- which she does, with an added seen-it-all, weather-worn edge. Most people donated money, several bought CDs, and a few tossed handfuls of coins across the tracks.

"Yeah, that happens a lot," says Holbrook, between songs. "I kind of wish it would stop." Still, she hasn't suffered injuries from any errant coins yet, and she's always grateful for a donation. She says "thank you" each time a lingering commuter adds to her lunchbox of funds, which sits neatly inside her sticker-plastered guitar case, even if she's mid - lyric.

Holbrook is a much-buzzed-about fixture among Boston's T-side musicians, but she has yet to gain national attention, despite some close calls. She's recorded two albums, "Running From the Sky" (self-released) and "Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt" (Back Porch Records), starred in a documentary about street performers called "Playing for Change," and performed in clubs locally with the first lady of street singers, Mary Lou Lord. Her hook is her voice; her music is reminiscent of Jenny Lewis covering "Exile in Guyville"-era Liz Phair, vaguely childlike but with a darker, more cynical side. Many of her songs are laced with themes of loss and punctuated by mythical imagery, but that comes out mostly on her albums and at clubs. She limits her subway set lists to covers and family-friendly tunes.

Holbrook, an Abington native, has been busking full-time since she graduated from Emerson College. For six years after college, she performed in Santa Monica, Calif., on the famed Third Street Promenade; last fall she returned to Boston to be closer to her family. That led her back to the Park Street and Harvard Square T stations -- where Holbrook first performed publicly, at age 18.

"I knew I loved music, but I didn't necessarily have any confidence to think I could actually make a living with it," says Holbrook, recalling her teen years over tea and crepes at Z Square, in Harvard Square. "I actually auditioned for a national production of 'Les Miserables,' and I did really well. I thought, 'I guess I should pursue that.' But then I realized, I'm not that kind of happy." Holbrook didn't grow up with starry-eyed dreams of becoming the next big star. Her looks and her theatrical vocals make her the perfect candidate for either the stage or the pop music charts, but she's not interested in playing a character or singing about her latest love woes. Instead, her music is both a means for dealing with tragedy and an outlet for her opinions.

When Holbrook was 16, her brother Christopher, who had introduced her to the joys of metal and grunge music, passed away tragically and mysteriously at the age of 24. Authorities were unable to identify the cause of his death, according to Holbrook. After losing the brother she had always admired, when she first picked up a guitar, as a college freshman, she had a catharsis of sorts. Out came all of her feelings of grief and loss, in the form of heartbreakingly honest songs. Many of these ended up on Holbrook's first album, "Running From the Sky."

"You withered away / Through doors of other times / Your peace was a soldier / Your spirit was colder," Holbrook sings on "The Snow," over acoustic guitar and flute. Later, on "Spaceship," she sings, "And now you're far, far from the earth / Above the rock and soil / Far, far from the earth / where blood no longer boils," to the accompaniment of moaning strings. As a whole, the album is a sparse, at times haunting, portrait of loss, with references to myths and fairy tales, a hallmark of hers .

"I've always been in love with mythology and the King Arthur period," she says. "My brothers were into Dungeons and Dragons, and I used to steal their manuals and memorize them." The theme continues, though less apparently, on Holbrook's 2005 release, "Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt." On "Running Into Walls," Holbrook relates the tale of Humpty Dumpty to the lonely aimlessness many recent college graduates experience, when life feels as though it "crumbles and tumbles and stumbles down."

Holbrook's second album is an exhibit of both her musical and personal growth while living in California, with feminist themes that leak through on tracks about three-inch heels, plastic surgery, and one-night stands.

"I always had a strong feminist side," she says. "I'm not a man hater or anything like that. I'm just concerned about women obsessed with what they look like, or don't look like, or want to look like. It's something that I see in every woman that I know, in a powerful way, even if it's not obvious."

Holbrook is a skilled songwriter, but the album's overproduced effects often overshadow her sweetly sarcastic voice and inventive lyrics. On "Make Them Wonder," she howls about image-obsessed men, in a stream of lyrics not suitable for print, and then asks "Who are they to call me obscene?" It's a powerful song, but her point gets lost in the whistles and layers of harmonizing vocals.

Holbrook's true talent as a vocalist and a songwriter were more starkly obvious on a cold Tuesday evening last month, when she played for a packed crowd at Sky Bar in Somerville, without the roar of trains or album effects behind her. In a ruffled crimson top, black skirt, and black fishnet stockings, with a black silk flower behind her ear, Holbrook resembled a 1940s jazz singer. The crowd was reverently quiet as she sang, frowning and squinting downward, as though getting out the songs was a physically demanding process. On the subway she's a captivating voice, on her albums a girl with a point, but onstage she's the whole package.

Of course, that's not the only reason for Holbrook to play at clubs in addition to T stations. Midway through her set, she requested more volume on the microphone.

"I'm going deaf," she said. "You try singing over trains all the time -- it's hard."

The Boston Phoenix

In praise of Lily Holbrook singing for her supper

February 20, 2007

Worth a shout-out: Lily Holbrook downstairs on the Red Line at Park Street last night was bananas. Her album Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt rated strictly meh when it crossed our desks about a year and a half ago. Not for lack of a voice, because she's got a real sweet one -- not even Mary Lou ever cut through subway rumble and idle chatter the way Lily's did as we came around the corner on our way to the Bang Camaro shindig. Lily's got that real effortless, piercing, soaring thing going on -- like whoa. Her songs ("gothic renaissance faire folke" -- C. Eddy) never really connected with us -- why'd she have to go and make things so complicated? -- but we're ready to give them a second listen after watching her go house on Ozzy's "Momma I'm Comin' Home" and the Cure's "Just Like Heaven." Shit had grown men getting all lumpy and kids stealing their moms pocketbooks to throw change at her and crazy dudes eating popcorn who recognized her from the article the Metro ran, by coincidence, that same day. (We should've whipped out the camera phone for evidence, but . . . we're soft. Sorry. Here's a ) She lucked into a Harvard Square express train so the platform was twice as crowded as usual, but it's been a long time since we saw someone completely transfix 300 random commuters with finger-picked covers. That's fucking entertainment. This is also our passive-aggressive way of trying to get her to record some of that underground shit for us to give away in the ever-popular mpeg-III format. If anyone sees her, tell her to holler

PopMatters

Scratch a Busker, Find a Techno-Pop Chanteuse

1 March 2005

Boston-based Lily Holbrook got her record deal by busking in T stations and in Harvard Square and other great venues for folky types. You'd think, with folk music being so hip and hot these days, that she would just stick with that for this record, her first for Virgin- and EMI-offshoot Back Porch Records. But no: it turns out that all any busker wants to do is to make techno-influenced pop music.

I do not have a problem with this, either in theory or in practice. This is a lovely album, full of great weird maximalist production touches (those Loch Ness guitar tones on "Better Left Unsaid"!) and hooks that actually stay with the listener. But it doesn't sound anything like all those corny folkie dudes that used to keep me up by singing "Sugar Mountain" on infinite repeat when I lived in Boston.

What it sounds more like is that Lily Holbrook loves Kate Bush and Björk and Joni Mitchell and Juliana Hatfield and Liz Phair more than she is concerned about adhering to any Catie Curtis/Lucy Kaplansky template. She's more of a power hitter than a bunter, and that's great, as far as I'm concerned. Ani DiFranco has gotten more interesting over the years, because she is willing to risk her purist audience to make weirder wilder music; Holbrook must have stolen her playbook, and I couldn't be happier about that, because talent like this needs room to fly.

This is an album that actually wants to be HEARD. I wouldn't be surprised to hear "Bleed", with its dense walls of rockthrob, underscoring the next girl-girl hookup on The O.C., and "When in Rome" (which re-does new wave almost as well as Bowling for Soup or Fountains of Wayne) could completely fit in among the Pinks and Avrils and Hilarys and Fefes and Skyes that have come to brighten up girlpop in the last few years: "You think there's nothing else I'd rather do / Than sit here and sell myself to you". She's got melodies and something to say and a compelling voice, and she wants to rock out sometimes, and I'm in favor of all these things.

Which doesn't mean that Holbrook isn't only about the big hit single. "Mermaids" is portentous Tori-worship, all piano arpeggios and surprising accordion'n'string poignance, a song about remaining inside one's dreamworld to avoid the shitty reality that surrounds us. It's pretty, but Holbrook has no problem with pretty songcraft. "Cowboys and Indians", which actually does sound like folk music, will not leave my head even after the CD is over, and "Running into Walls" is the same way even though it actually pulls out the ancient Humpty Dumpty metaphor. (I thought the Geneva Convention had outlawed this. Clearly, I need to do some research.)

Holbrook does not have a lot of different themes. She is obsessed with notions of conventional female beauty; this is not a bad thing to take aim at, as it is truly one of the worst things about our "modern" society, but she beats this rug on several different tracks and doesn't find anything new to say about it. (If I didn't know better, I'd make some stupid comment here about how it's always the young attractive women who sing about this topic…but I know what assholes kids can be, and I'm sure that Holbrook was just gawky or "unusual-looking" enough to get some mean things said about her. I think she's gotten over that now, judging by the CD photos, but I also know that some scars never heal.) Hopefully, with time, Holbrook will gain a wider songwriting palette.

The song that will gain more than its share of attention will be her cover of Ozzy Osbourne's "Mama, I'm Coming Home". She does this as a tribute to her dead brother Christopher as kind of a trip-hop chillout track, slow and soothing, about as far from a power ballad as this song could ever be, with chattering drum patterns and psychedelic echo effects... but when the strings come in at 2:30, it still brings a bit of a lump to the throat. Then, a minute later, when the final chorus comes, it hits pretty hard.

Okay, yeah, I really like this record. If she didn't swear so much on "Make Them Wonder" ("They want robot sex with a pretty machine / They want a dirty little girl whose mouth tastes clean / Well they're all fucked up on the American dream / Who are they to call me obscene") I'd give this to my daughter to play and learn and memorize. As it is, I might do that anyway, after I listen to it 100 more times myself.

LILY HOLBROOK

by Catherine P. Lewis

Nov. 25, 2005

Lily Holbrook developed her folk-rock songs by busking on the streets of Boston and Los Angeles, which led to her being featured in the street musicians documentary "Playing for Change." But rather than replicating that simple street sound on her sophomore album, "Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt," Holbook explores fuller arrangements, incorporating strings and pianos.

Holbrook's girlish coo bears a striking similarity to Jewel's breathy sound, and that innocence supports her lyrical themes about the struggles of growing up. She explores womanhood, from the objectification of her gender ("Make Them Wonder") to society's expectations of a woman's appearance ("Bleed").

Holbrook finds ways to shake free from predictability. She reinvents Ozzy Osbourne's "Mama, I'm Coming Home" as a tender ballad and gives "Cowboys and Indians" majestically sparse instrumentation, allowing her ethereal vocals to rise to the forefront. Surrounding herself with fairy-tale imagery and memories of simpler times (even down to her album's title), Holbrook makes fragility her biggest asset, giving "Everything" a sound as innocent as it is honest.