Gummy, cracked, rasping and often sounding catarrh heavy, the North Carolina folk-country singer’s voice sounds pretty much how he looks, craggy, grizzled, straggle-haired, gap-toothed, wet-lipped and weathered. But it, like the man and his songs, certainly has character. Critically if not commercially acclaimed, his first recordings appeared on a joint album with Steve Milner back in 1985, releasing his solo debut, A Far Cry From Here, in 1994 at the age of 39, since which time he’s released a further nine as well as an EP. To mark its 20th anniversary , this album offers a retrospective of his work between then and now, the 16 selections re-recorded in the RCA Studios in Nashville with a four piece band, featuring something from all of the past releases alongside a brand new number in the shape of live set highlight ‘Mouth Harp Man’, a jogging blues collaboration with legendary Nashville harmonica player Jelly Roll Johnson.
The set kicks off with ‘Who Carried You’, one of two songs from 1999’s ‘A Hundred Lies’, a simple, fiddle backed acoustic American folk tale that namechecks Agatha Christie and sounds vaguely reminiscent of Guy Clark. Since the intention of the album was to represent the diversity of Holcombe’s styles, the second track, ‘Mister In Morgantown’, is a clanking junkyard blues that reminds why he’s been likened to Tom Waits and which again features Johnson on harp before ‘I Feel Like A Train’, off the 2007 Wager EP, shifts to a sprightly waltzing fiddle backed dust country tune. The same feel informs a stripped back version of 2009’s eco-tinged love song ‘Doncha Miss That Water’ before talking acoustic folk blues take hold on the grief-stained, contemplative ‘The Empty Jar’. That’s taken from 2012’s Down The River, as is the far more uptempo, fiddle and Dobro bouncing social injustice-themed ‘Butcher In Town’; then it’s back to 2011 and the title track off To Drink The Rain, given a growling, raw, blues rock treatment with another lurching percussive rhythm.
Striking a contrast once more, ‘Early Mornin’’ heads back to 2005 for a warm, laid back country ballad that again evokes vintage Clark, the same album offering the similarly styled regret-streaked ballad ‘I Never Heard You Knockin’’, Tammy Rogers fiddle underscoring Holcombe’s world weary talked vocal.
‘I Call The Shots’, another abuse of power song from Down The River, is again a gutsy growled number with Waitsian undertones, then comes the first of the album’s two duets, ‘My Ol’ Radio’, the only song from 2007’s Gamblin’ House, a jaunty Dobro and fiddle accompanied country tune on which he’s joined by one of the UK’s great lost country voices, Siobhan Maher-Kennedy of River City People fame, who just happens to be married to Holcombe’s go to producer, Ray Kennedy.
Moving into the final stretch, ‘Goin’ Home’, the sole pick off 2006’s Not Forgotten, is another Clark-like spoken dust country number with a steady strummed guitar backing and almost minor key anthemic feel, then its back to Down The River again for the laid back, slow shuffling title track about the hard-pressed pulling together in the face of those who “make the laws to suit themselves.” The most recent number, ‘Pitiful Blues’, the five minute title track from last year’s release, delivers another gutsy, electric guitar driven, growled vocal turn with a fearsome lyric about the oppressed seeking an eye for an eye as he sings “all I wanna see, all I wanna hear is people dyin’ screamin’ full o’ fear.”
Cleansing the palate, the album ends on a calmer, more wistful note, Maura O’Connell joining to duet on ‘A Far Cry From Here’, a song about love and the miles between that previously appeared on both his solo debut and A Hundred Lies. A solid retrospective for the faithful and an enticing introduction to newcomers.
Note: The release comes as a double disc, the second being a DVD recording of the sessions (Holcombe’s first ever DVD release) intercut with interviews with the musicians.
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Artist’s website: http://www.malcolmholcombe.com/
‘Mister In Morgantown’ live in the studio: