If you feel that ‘Southern folk golem’ Holcombe’s croaky roll-up rasp suggests he’s been shovelling coal dust of his cereals and makes Tom Waits sound like Perry Como, then you’ll be pleased to hear that on his latest album, Come Hell Or High Water, his third in as many years, is leavened by vocal contributions from Iris DeMent and Greg Brown. If you’re a fan regardless, this is just icing on the cake.
It opens with ‘Left Alone’, a Prine-like strummed song about an old friend, a “veteran Vietnam killing machine” that takes on a wider resonance about soldiers who sink into self-destruction when they return home only to be abandoned by those they served. A similar concern for the nation’s invisible people fuels the simply scuffed deMent duet, I Don’t Wanna Disappear Anymore’ as he sings “I love to work and keep my head above water/It’s hard to live in the darkness”.
That same sense of not belonging informs the mandolin flecked shuffling ‘New Damnation Alley’ and its image of America’s economic divide, of the “billionaire barbarians” cruising their corporate “clipper ships for slaves”. An equally desolate vision shapes the fingerpicked acoustic blues ‘Legal Tender’ with its images of a drug money economy with “trailer meth labs round the corner” and how “pharmaceuticals paint the sky and fill the cemeteries”.
‘It Is What It Is’ takes a tribal blues stop rhythm with Jared Tyler on Dobro as he sings about doing what you gotta do to make it through but still being able to “walk away free and clean”, while ‘Black Bitter Moon’ serves another cautionary note about the coming “rain and the dread” that balances image of community bonds with ones of domestic abuse.
The album’s mood rarely wavers throughout, ‘Torn & Wrinkled’ a rumination on growing old and a feeling of never living up to his father’s legacy, the fingerpicked slide blues ‘October Mornin’’ a spare traditional folk-blues like number about being lost in a spiritual darkness, the cruel cold of winter and living on the skids the core of both ‘The Old North Side’ and ‘In The Winter’.
Again duetting with deMent, when he sings about being his ‘Brother’s Keeper’, you might expect a crack of light, but it would seem that in contemporary America there are no good Samaritans reaching out to the “breadlines of the bones”, compassion lost “beyond the weepin’ screams”. It’ll come as little surprise then that, another Prine echo, the mandolin bedecked ‘Merry Christmas’ is anything but with its family portrait of “rockin’ chair grouchy gums” and how “daddy’s drunk doncha know it”.
On the CD inner sleeve, he includes a section from a painting by Kylie Harris based on Captain Beefheart’s 10 Commandments Of Guitar Playing, one of which is “Don’t wipe the sweat off your instrument. You need that stink on there. Then you have to get that stink onto your music.” This album reeks to high heaven.
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Artist’s website: https://www.malcolmholcombe.com/
‘Black Bitter Moon’ – official video: