Critically lauded North Carolina based singer-songwriter Malcolm Holcombe has become something of a quiet institution since the release of his first record way back in 1996. It is difficult to know where to start when confronted with the degree of critical acclaim he has garnered over the past 20 years, so rather than try, I can think of nothing better to sum him up than this quote from Rolling Stone Magazine 'haunted country, acoustic blues and rugged folk'. However, this acclaim has not necessarily translated into the sort of recognition enjoyed by oft-cited contemporaries such as Steve Earl and Emmylou Harris and he remains perhaps something of an 'underground' folk hero.
I first came across him a few years ago whilst idly perusing live sessions on YouTube from the marvellous Union Music Store in Lewes, here in the UK. There he was, gravel voiced, ferociously beating his guitar and rocking back and forth on his chair in hypnotic fashion to spellbinding effect. I bought his then release Down The River and it's safe to say I have been something of an admirer of him since.
Another admirer, equally lauded American singer-songwriter Darrell Scott, has produced Pretty Little Troubles and musically Malcolm is joined by a veritable cast of thousands representing all that is good in modern country, folk and Americana. Far too many to list here, but the fact so many musicians of this stature want to play on a Malcolm Holcombe record says something of the esteem in which his peers hold him.
For me, the opening three tracks of this album are about as good an introduction to a record I have heard in a very long time. Moreover, for anyone new to Malcolm, a run through these songs will serve admirably as a whistle stop tour of his talents.
Crippled Point O' View sleazes in on a bumping bass line that could have been pilfered from Tito & Tarantula and the From Dusk till Dawn soundtrack. Throw in some Tom Waits type percussion and it is all marvellously disorientating before everything is grounded with the arrival of Malcolm's mightily gruff voice. 'I can't deny these troubled old times' he tells us and we are back in familiar territory as the song rolls through nearly four and a half minutes of musical twists and turns.
Yours No More is an acoustic, country-flavoured song with lovely layers of slide over Malcolm's guitar and his voice sitting right on top of the mix. One of his glorious laments to people used, abused and discarded by those with more power suddenly moves into almost gospel territory with the chorus voices doubling his vocal on 'Send me your tired and poor, sick and sufferin', send them to me, send them to me, Ellis island is yours no more'. Spine tingling stuff indeed.
Good Ole Days completes this opening trio of songs, driving along on banjo, bass and shuffling percussion in old timey bluegrass fashion. This being Malcolm Holcombe, it's safe to say the Good Ole Days are referenced ironically and the whole track has a playful feel with its call and response chorus and ensemble Soggy Bottom Boys vocals, which lend a timeless 'Oh Brother Where Art Thou' quality to the proceedings.
So, three tracks in and we have been treated to Malcolm Holcombe's full repertoire of gruff, belligerent, longing, yearning, ironic and playful all delivered with his trade mark vocals, guitar and the most creative and complimentary musical accompaniment imaginable. The only problem foreseeable here is that of peaking to early!
Fortunately, the rest of the album stands square with these openers and rather than go through each track individually, I will just pick out a few personal favourites to say a bit more about.
Bury, England, which is pretty much a verbatim account of a show in a northern UK venue, manages to marry a jaunty melody with an opening couplet of 'that ol building looked like a halfway house, smelled like an old folks home inside'. Things get worse from there, but as always, it remains difficult to establish whether this is sung with bile or warmth, maybe equal measures of both!
Damn Weeds is probably the most musically sparse song on the album, essentially Malcolm and his guitar but is yet another sweet, jaunty sounding number that belies its ambivalent themes. It also boasts some particularly visual lyrics 'a double-wide and a butterfly bush, maters got the blight, neighbours cuss the kids and dogs, ev'ry day and night'.
The Eyes O' Josephine is simply a stunning song. Malcolm's voice and guitar are welded to an Irish based backdrop that pushes the verses along until it takes over completely at about two minutes twenty with what I imagine is the Ulleann pipes of Mike McGoldrick. It feels that Malcolm physically fights his way back into the song for a mighty musical alliance that plays itself out for the next minute of so. Such is the authenticity here it would have been no surprise if a couple of reels and jigs were added on to the end in traditional Irish folk fashion!
I count myself as an admirer of Malcolm Holcombe and to my mind, this is his most complete album yet. The songs are strong, his trademark vocals are true and his acoustic guitar is as present as always, driving things along. However, for me, what gives this album the edge is the creativity of the arrangements, the quality of the production and breathtaking musicianship by all involved. Whilst crystal clear, the recording never glosses over or smoothes out Malcolm's vocal idiosyncrasies, warts and all, and essentially maintains the energy of a live take. Producer Darrell Scott should rightly take much of the credit for this, along with his own multi instrumental musical contribution. There doesn't seem to be an instrument this man cannot play! Factor in the previously mentioned bunch of musicians that are still too numerous to name individually, and you truly have the basis of a stunning musical soundscape.
So, another great Malcolm Holcombe album, but with bells and whistles this time. A truly joyous and uplifting piece of music.
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