MALCOLM HOLCOMBE – DOWN THE RIVER
2012 – Gypsy Eyes Music
Always a huge talent but now in the upper echelons of a genre that links country, folk and blues in varying doses depending on the song, this superb new album could end up being a career defining recording. This is his tenth album release in the best part of two decades and whilst none of those recordings have been bad, several have lacked the quality of perhaps his last four or five albums, with each of those being an improvement over it’s predecessor.
This recording is produced by multi talented singer, songwriter Ray Kennedy in Nashville, ironically the home of ‘country pop,’ a genre that is a million miles from this extraordinary album. The supporting musicians are more than worthy of mention with Ken Coomer (Uncle Tupelo, Wilco) on drums, Viktor Krauss on bass, Tammy Rogers-King on mandolin, fiddle and viola, with Darrell
Scott playing dobro, banjo and electric guitar. Emmylou Harris helps out with some lovely harmony vocals and there is even a duet with Steve Earle! An incredible bunch of musicians, all of whom are schooled on the edgier side of country music.
Malcolm’s vocals sound raw, gravelly and as old as the hills and with a depth of feeling that tells you the man has seen less plain sailing than most. He imbues every word he sings with a feeling that no matter how sad or even tragic the story, the listener is left with the feeling that he has lived many of them. It’s quite frequent when writing about music to give the impression that the singer has experienced what he/she is singing about but in the case of Malcolm Holcombe it is as if he is re-experiencing the drama whilst recounting the tale to the listener.
Live, he is one of the most compelling performers I have ever seen and, probably uniquely, he has a similar effect on this album. I can visualise him sitting hunched over his guitar, almost as if there is no one else in the room, at times seeming to balance the old wooden chair on which he perches on just one of it’s four legs! Almost gravity defying at times; which fits very well with the intensity of the tales he recounts to the spellbound audience. I really can’t wait to see him again! (see end note)
His guitar playing is superb, echoing the feeling and lyrics he applies to each of his beautifully
written songs. There is nothing overtly technical or flashy, just all done on pure instinct, easy to see when he is playing live but unusually also just as obvious on many of his recordings. There is just no separation of the man from the instrument or from the song, all three are blended into a raw power that again, comes purely from instinct.
Many of the songs are multi faceted and open to several different interpretations at once, not so much as contrasts, but within the expansive boundaries set by Holcombe’s lyrical poeticism. Of the
tales on this c.d some set out the scale of a particular problem as he might see it but then, where many don’t bother, he concentrates on and broadens the effect on the poor and downtrodden provoking plenty of thought in the listener! Album opener Butcher in Town, has a slightly sinister sounding dobro and mandolin introduction then in comes those gravelly chesty vocals that in short sharp observations seems to sum up life in steamy poor small town American south. This is followed by some slow but powerful instrumentation on I Call the Shots, almost a lovelorn ballad, were it not for those vocals, about one of life’s losers who realizes his mistakes and hopefully has enough savvy to put things right, but has he? ‘No compromise’ those two words from Twisted Arms are probably as
perfect a sumnation of Malcolm as you are likely to hear on a tale that could be a song about politics and attitude wrapped up in a large amount of metaphor. Strong electric guitars and those harsh rasping vocals draining every last drop of passion from the song, accompanied by some excellent country rock instrumentation. The Door is a gorgeous haunting ballad with lovely steel guitar. It opens with steel and acoustic guitar with Malcolms vocals as soft as for a long time on a song that
paints a simple if harrowing picture of a struggling family, particularly the story teller. In Your Mercy includes Emmylou Harris’ beautiful harmonies and a lovely fiddle wending it’s way through a song that is another harrowing tale, this time of abandonment that could as easily be set a in a medical
hospital, mental hospital, workhouse, prison or retirement home. The Steve Earle duet is Trail O’ Money with Earle probably being one of the few men capable of singing with anywhere near
Malcolms depth of feeling. The song is driven by a nice dobro and harmonica on a tale of the corruption prevalent in the financial world and the effects on people lower down the scale. Highly topical! Album closer Down the River was lyrically quite surprising with it’s knowing if quite naïve
attitude. It’s a beautiful mellow sounding song with banjo, dobro and fiddle on a final summing up of the corrupt world of politics and finance and how it always sells us ‘Down the river.’ It seems to have been treated as an affirmation that as long as we have the basics, our dreams and beliefs that is
enough. If only that were true, but all the time one person wants more than others, it never will be.
As usual with Malcolm’s albums there is no real balance between darkness and light. His songs just are what comes out of him and long may they continue to do so. Not much light and plenty of darkness wrapped up in a huge amount of realistic allusion equates to, in this case, a brilliant album!
Malcolm starts a European tour on Friday 7th September and plays the Prince Albert, Brighton on Friday 21st. See his website for full details