Twenty-five years on from his debut album, Holcombe remains one of the most distinctive voices, both literally and figuratively, in what we now called Americana. Tricks Of The Trade is his 15th solo outing and, accompanied by long time accomplices Dave Roe and Jared Tyler, the latter here taking up the electric guitar, with Mary Gauthier and Jaimee Harris contributing backing vocals, finds him in fine grizzled form on songs that mine matters of the heart alongside political commentary.
Double bass throbbing and guitar resonating it opens in a slinky bluesy Tom Waits style with the gravelly sung ‘Money Train’ which takes on the persona of someone who doesn’t give a damn about anyone else as makes plans to get ahead (“I dont care ’bout the starvin’ naked world, somebody else’ll fix it”) before a more Prine-like country sound takes over for ‘Misery Loves Company’ as the narrator drowns his sorrows brought out about by drowning his sorrows (“I’ve tasted and I wasted/the good life that I had/My poor selfish drinkin’/made a rich ol man go mad”),
It’s back to a bluesier groove for ‘Into The Sunlight’, a number about the redemptive power of love, before returning to his opening theme of self-serving greed with the swampy, fingerpicked ‘Crazy Man Blues’ where Waits meets Dire Straits with its image of “towers of money from LA to London” and how “ain’t it nice being white in a president suit… while the drunkards applaud and conspire” that seems to have a fairly obvious target, as indeed, conjuring Dylan circa ‘Hurricane’, does the following ‘Your Kin’ as she sings “the cops take away your children/the cops take away your kin” and “not a chance in a man-made hell for a mother at the border wails”, looking in vain for mercy from “a dictator for a president”.
There’s further angry fire fuelling the similarly Dylanesque urgent folk blues ‘On Tennessee Land’ which addresses the hardships of the poor and ignored (“no democrat ‘lected since the Civil War in a Tennessee county where the dead died poor”) but also the pride they carry (“I’d rather be poor honest to God than a rich lyin’ son of a bitch for a boss”), while the rolling rhythm ‘Damn Rainy Day’ captures the hard scrabble life in the Appalachians (“slapped around hard as a kid/I learned to take it like we all did”) where you soon learn “pretty people they better than you/bossy people get ahead in the news/wheels turnin’ runnin’ over the truth”, but at least, banged up in an institution, “heat bill’s paid and the tv works”.
He paints an equally grim picture in the steady stomping train time rhythm and insistent guitar line of ‘Higher Ground’ which, addressing social and racial inequality with its ironic “I got freedom to choose” chorus, references the Lake Okeechobee hurricane of 1928 in the Florida everglades , the third deadliest hurricane in America’s history (“twenty-five hundred drowned in the fury/white people got caskets/black people mass graves/migrant farmers burned bodies no names”) before switching the lens to Baltimore and slum landlords, observing “it ain’t about your money,it aint about your gold/it’s all about takin’ and losin’ control”.
It’s a darkness that permeates the album, on ‘Lenora Cynthia’ (interestingly sharing the names of two characters in Donald Ray Pollock’s Southern Gothic novel The Devil All the Time) he talk of “the prison in my head” and how “they feed you to the wolves to crush your bones to sand” while “we sing so help me God my country tis of thee”. Then riding a rolling resonator guitar pattern ‘Good Intentions’ takes a cynical look at the illusion of the American Dream, referencing 60s staid and wholesome bandleader and television impresario Lawrence Welk, the war in Libya, draft dodging preachers, good ole Southern white boys, dirty politicians and the Bible Belt while, in a similar vein, echoing the PT Barnum reference in the opening song, the Prine-like fingerpicked semi-spoken title track draws on the imagery of the deceptions and illusions under the carny big top as “the sucker crowd will cheer for ev’ry slight of hand” but still keep coming back for more, You don’t have to be a genius to spot the political metaphors.
It ends with its most musically immediate track, ‘Shaky Ground’, another echo of Prine, about living the life of privilege (“it must be nice not to face your troubles ev’ry day/with a cocktail in your face to wash away the pain”) but, picking up the theme of illusion, turns it into a more personal comment about hiding your hurt (“it must be cool not to fool all your friends close to you/with some pathetic point o’ view to wash away the blues”) as, with an image of the rain washing away the walls, he ends with the simple “I miss you by my side”.
If you get in early for a first run limited edition copy, you also get a bonus track, the gravel throated Waitsian ‘Windows Of Amsterdam’ which draws on images of the city’s sex trade and those parading their wares (“damn angel eyes and rattlesnake skin”) to entice the sexually hungry, the song perhaps somewhat sourly extending the notion of manipulative exploitation and illusion in a line about how “women color their hair, buy new clothes,designer fingernails for another rich man hard on dollar”.
As the opening track has it, the album finds Holcombe turning it up a little louder, and not just in terms of decibels, often dark and pessimistic about human nature, but underpinned with a compassion for those confined to a frigid winter and longing for sunlight.
Artist’s website: www.malcolmholcombe.com
‘Shaky Ground’ – official video: