Malcolm Holcombe – new album

Malcolm Holcombe

In the end, who can explain the secret of endurance? Why does one marriage last and another does not? Why does one song or album catch our ear while others, arguably as good, slip past us? What convinces an artist or musician to continue pursuing the craft in a time of audiences with short attention spans and diminishing financial returns?

On the eve of releasing Another Black Hole, his fourteenth album (including a duet album cut with North Carolina music legend Sam Milner back in the 80s), Malcolm Holcombe is in no mood to ponder such things. “They’re free to like it or change the CD or completely ignore it,” he says over the telephone from New Haven, CT. “It all depends on how bad their conscience is.”

Those who have paid attention to Holcombe’s music will find more of what they expect here: Holcombe’s rasping vocals and bright, percussive guitar accentuating his insightful lyrics. A few of Holcombe’s longtime musical compatriots show up to help him out, most notably Jared Tyler, who plays guitar, banjo, mandolin, dobro and offers background harmonies and rock solid rhythm section David Roe on bass and Ken Coomer on drums. Swamp pop legend Tony Joe White plays electric guitar on a number of cuts, including the hard rocking ‘Papermill Man’, and the visionary percussionist Futureman, also known as Roy Wooten, inventor of the drumitar, lends percussion on several cuts. Drea Merritt drops by to sing harmonies as well.

Last year, Holcombe released The RCA Sessions, a retrospective of his two decades of recordings. For most of this time, Malcolm has handled his own career from his hometown of Swannanoa, NC, a few miles down the road from Weaverville, where he was born in 1955. Another Black Hole does not indicate a change of direction for Holcombe, only a widening and deepening of the groove he has worked for most of his years playing and singing. Lyrically, the songs mingle Holcombe’s off the cuff wisdom and sharp-eyed commentary on the human condition. Without staking a political or spiritual position, Holcombe’s songs make it clear that he sees his place with those who suffer at the end of the “suits and ties in the cubicles”, as he sings in ‘To Get By’. But because he sees things in human terms and in the terms of survival, Holcombe heads down to “Rice’s Grocery down on Main Street/ We got credit there.”

Ray Kennedy, who has produced several of Malcolm’s albums, including Another Black Hole, says,

“Malcolm Holcombe is fiercely striking every time you encounter him on or off stage. You just get sucked into his extraordinary world of the twisting of words and wisdom that come from a bottomless well. The melodies and fierce rhythms wrap his narrative into an event where you find yourself at his unique musical carnival. Then suddenly he slays you with a sweet love ballad or a sarcastic social commentary.”

In ‘Leavin’ Anna’, Holcombe croons “A working man’s a working man/ Makes the flowers grow.” The labourers, the displaced, the papermill worker, the man who spends “nickels and dimes like hundred dollar bills”, these are Malcolm Holcombe’s people and the ones who live in his songs. But he is far less interested in talking about his own songs than in talking about other musicians whose names come up in the course of a conversation.

When country singing legend Don Williams is mentioned, Malcolm says, “I used to listen to that Portrait album all the time”, and asks if Williams played a couple of his more popular songs in a recent concert. He also speaks fondly of Les Paul and, later, of Keith Richards: “He’s rock and roll all day long, ain’t he?”

Recently Warren Haynes, another musician native to western North Carolina, has mentioned Malcolm’s name in interviews. Typically, Holcombe was unaware of this, but filled with praise for Haynes.

“He’s a real gentleman. I’m glad to call him a friend”, he says. “He taught me how to bend a string on a guitar.”

Chances are that Another Black Hole will not be mentioned at Grammy time, but it is a strong addition to an ever-strengthening catalogue of music made by a humble craftsman in western North Carolina. “It is Malcolm’s perception of the world that make his songs hit you like a gunpowder blast. His gruff and tough delivery is a primordial power full of grit, spit and anthropomorphic expression”, says Ray Kennedy. Trends come and go. What is real is the ground beneath our feet, the sky above us, the struggle to earn a living. These are Malcolm Holcombe’s timeless subjects and the spin he puts on them makes our journey here more bearable.

Artist’s website:

The making of Another Black Hole:

MALCOLM HOLCOMBE – Another Black Hole (Gypsy Eyes Music)

Another Black HoleHaving released The RCA Sessions retrospective re-recordings last year, Holcombe makes a swift return with a 10 song set of brand new material, recorded in Nashville with regular collaborators Jared Tyler (dobro, baritone guitar, banjo, mandolin), Dave Roe (bass), Ken Coomer (drums), swamp legend Tony Joe White (electric guitar), drumitar inventor Future Man and Drea Merritt (harmony). The voice is sounding increasingly gummy these days, the ‘sh’ of the sibilances making you wonder whether he might need a set of dentures, but that just compounds the lived in quality of his singing and songwriting.

‘Sweet Georgia’ kicks things off with banjo and string bass riding a relaxed rolling rhythm that’s rather in contrast lyrics about small town darkness, parental abandonment and cheap thin walls with cobweb corners. That edge also seeps into the swamp blues ‘Another Black Hole’, White’s slide guitar underscoring the air of menace and life in the city’s underbelly. However, while ‘To Get By’ continues the theme of scraping by and making do, musically – and in Holcombe’s phrasing – it comes over like one of Guy Clark’s good time strums. On the other hand, it’s early Kristofferson who comes to mind with ‘Heidelberg Blues’ where wartime images of bombs and ruins are at odds with the fact that the town was never targeted by air raids, though memories of the many souls who “will never know springtime once again” does remind that it was from here that many hundreds of Jews were sent to concentration camps.

With the line about “California wanna be’s feedin’ the famine in my backyard”, the loping, throaty semi-spoken ‘Don’t Play Around’ returns us to America’s urban recession and inequality and things don’t much lighten up on the rest of the album, either. The choppy “Someone Missing” talks of volatile relationships and “the bumpy ride way outta of town”, the strut-rocking blues ‘Papermill Man’ delineates a life of the daily grind for “a dollar a day” as you ask “do you live to eat, do you eat to live” while the “damn Vanderbilts hold the keys to the city” and the spoken, acoustic picked ‘September’ talks of loss and how “the hearts of the dead leave you empty”.

It ends on, if anything, even darker notes. ‘Leavin’ Anna’ (which references Cormac McCarthy, just as ‘Don’t Play Around’ name checked Larry McMurtry) recalls the Great Depression where working men “travelled where the money was good” at the cost of not having “a soul I can call a friend when darkness settles in” before ending on images of floods and drownings. And, finally, comes ‘Way Behind’, a song of loss (“a precious tiny hand holdin’ on and turnin’ cold”), guilt (“the neighbors all remember the fancy funeral homes I never set foot in to comfort anyone”) and the need for mercy and redemption “when shadows follow clouds too heavy with my tears.” Don’t come here looking for “happy go lucky”, as he says on the title track, that ain’t his “set o’ wheels”; but if you want raw hurt and blackened despair then this is your ride along.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

Another Black Hole – promo video:

LUCINDA WILLIAMS – Down Where The Spirit Meets the Bone (Highway 20)

Lucinda-WilliamsIn launching her own label at 61, Williams clearly hasn’t gone for any half-measures. Her first album in four years, this is a 20 track double set that clocks in at around two hours without a single hint of filler. With guitarist Greg Leisz a constant presence and Elvis Costello’s rhythm section (Pete Thomas, Davey Faragher) featuring on most of the tracks, the musicians also variously include Ian McLagan on keyboards, bassist Bob Glaub, Bill Frisell and Doug Pettibone on guitars and Gia Ciambotti on back-ups, along with a couple of special guests we’ll get to later.

The album takes its title from the final two lines of the opening track, ‘Compassion’, an adaptation of the poem by her father, Miller Williams, (and previously used on the inside cover of 2007’s West) as, accompanied by sparse acoustic guitar, she delivers its plea for empathy in a world wearied, dry gravel husk that makes Marianne Faithfull sound like Ellie Goulding. But then, she jabs you in the heart with a needle full of adrenaline, turning on the amps and bringing in the band for ‘Protection’, the sort of tremolo driven Southern country blues rock strutter of which Mick Jagger could only dream, before the steady rhythmic groove and catchy chorus of ‘Burning Bridges’, a song about a self-destructive friend, and the chiming, country-rock ‘East Side Of Town’ with its echoes of early Eagles and Jackson Browne and a lyric that, harking back to her father’s poem, addresses the complacent “mister do-good” politicians who make deals and promises, but who look not listen and have “no empathy in your eyes”.

Never one to shrink from socio-political comment, she strikes out again on ‘West Memphis’, her distinctive Southern slur drawled over a swamp-funk groove featuring Tony Joe White on guitar and harmonica, which (like the recent Colin Firth film, Devil’s Knot) addresses the 1993 miscarriage of justice that saw three teenagers convicted of the murder of three young boys, eventually released (but never cleared) after 18 years when new forensic evidence emerged. Sung from the perspective of Jessie Misskelley, who was coerced into a false confession, the lyrics chillingly note “that’s the way we do things in West Memphis.”

From the political, the focus shifts to the personal with ‘Cold Day In Hell’, a slow blues waltz kiss-off to a faithless ex, quite possibly the same one she’s addressing in the equally mid-tempo, soulful ‘Big Mess’ over on disc 2, both numbers featuring blistering guitar from Val McCallum. Meanwhile, it’s back to the Southern rock strut for the first disc’s closing sequence with ‘Foolishness’, McLagan on piano and Leisz on lap steel as she rejects all the liars and fear-mongers in her life declaring “what I do in my own time is none of your business and all of mine”.

From here, it’s into the brushed drums of the abandoned protagonist trying to track down her missing ‘next of kin’ in the Patsy Cline infused ‘Wrong Number’, a distant thematic cousin to ‘Return To Sender’, while ‘Stand Right By Each Other’ offers an almost reverse image, a determination to see things through together set to warm rolling, organ backed Memphis country soul that perfectly fits her honey and grit voice. But, if that keeps a grip on optimism, the album ends on a note of pessimistic resignation as Jakob Dylan joins her on harmonies for the mid-tempo honky-tonk shuffle ‘It’s Gonna Rain’, a song that dates back to her time living in Nashville.

Switch discs and the fire’s back, kicking off with the swaggering swampy near six minute ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’, Tony Joe White duelling with Leisz while Patrick Warren lays down the organ as Williams turns travelling preacher to warn of approaching fire and brimstone. But, if that’s apocalyptic, the mood switches again for the soulful (hints of Dobie Gray) slow swaying ‘When I Look At The World’ where “all its glory” makes up for the litany of disappointments and hard times. She’s equally positive on ‘Walk On’, a fairly straight-ahead country-rock number where she tells the woman in the lyrics (the lead singer in the band as it happens) to hang on in there because she has the strength to see things through. That same message about how pain is part of the hard won wisdom of the heart informs the magnificent slow waltzing ‘Temporary Nature (Of Any Precious Thing)’.

The power of positive thinking is there too in the snaking, swampy steamrollering groove of ‘Everything But The Truth’, Stuart Mathis and Leisz providing gutsy electric guitar as, back in preacher mode, she says “God put the firewood there, but you gotta light it yourself.”

Love lost, love received and love in the balance respectively inform the final three self-penned numbers, ‘This Old Heartache’ a pedal steel streaked old school honky tonker, ‘Stowaway In Your Heart’ an equally country guitar twanged chugger with Patrick Warren on chamberlin, and the give me another chance ‘One More Day’ adding Wurlitzer and a horns section to the mix to conjure up thoughts of slow burn Penn and Oldham.

The collection ends with the solitary cover, a close on 10 minute blissfully serene version of J.J.Cale’s ‘Magnolia’, Butch Norton on brushes with Frisell and Leisz’s guitars providing an understated, laid-back head massage as, in a sultry reverie, Williams smokily purrs “you’re the best I ever had” before intoning the title over and over Van Morrison-style as the band briefly wind down before firing up one more time for the playout.

After a four year silence, she’s returned, re-energised and in towering form with an album focused around emotional conflict and the ebbs and flows of the heart, one that both accepts the dark and embraces the light, to emerge strong in both spirit and bone. A late, but quite possibly unbeatable contender for country album of the year, and with news that the follow up is done and dusted, recorded during the same sessions and featuring a cover of Lou Reed’s ‘Pale Blue Eyes’, she may already have next year’s sorted too.

Mike Davies

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