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Malcolm Holcombe Malcolm Holcombe
Album: Come Hell Or High Water
Label: Gypsy Eyes Music
Tracks: 13

I have this image of Malcolm Holcombe emerging from a barn or similar building, or maybe wandering out of a thickly wooded hillside, brandishing a CD in one hand and modestly declaring: "Here's another one."

In reality, it feels nothing short of a special occasion when one of his new albums is released - and now we can gorge on the fresh delights in the staggering and gloriously scuffed collection that is Come Hell Or High Water.

The title seems apt for this consummate singer/songwriter from North Carolina. His brilliant, rustic catalogue has been doggedly hewn and honed with a resolve and a determination to give listeners memorable material with no excuses.

His songs are authentic and evocative. They may sound careworn, dusty, gruff and rumbling - and they are. Unflinchingly, Come Hell Or High Water's batch of songs create warmth through their earthy potency and ability to immerse the listener in the places Holcombe delves into.

He is a towering example of a songsmith who is a master in his craft but not in a pious manner, more in a carefree yet assured and charmingly dogged way to allow his slightly slurred, breathless vocals and troubled, dark tales drift over his bruising guitar style and the wonderful backing from his trusted band members.

And when you add Iris Dement and Greg Brown into the vocal mix the nature of the songs is, naturally, enhanced - overall, we enter classic troubadour territory in the 13 songs laid bare here.

The spirited Black Bitter Moon, with Jarred Tyler on dobro, may be shrouded in gloom but it is lightened by Dement haunting the chorus: "Come hell or high water / come the rain and the dread" is the plaintiff message while It Is What It Is chugs along dramatically and rhythmically, the percussive atmosphere's persistence only broken by Holcombe's insistent growl telling us: "Some people get crazy / with a streak o' mean / they piss me off sometimes / I walk away free and clean." It is succinct, it is moving, classic Holcombe words and feelings.

The duet with Dement on I Don't Want To Disappear Anymore is achingly defiant and gorgeous: they appeal in heartfelt fashion not to be forgotten as they sing: "I don't want to disappear anymore / I'm tired of living in the shadows." Vivid and bare, In The Winter, is, once again, driven by Marco Giovino's drumming while Holcombe's deep tones are nudged and soothed by Dement's slight singing, slipped in with ice-cool precision.

On the album's inside cover there is an image displaying "Captain Beefheart's X Commandments of Guitar Playing" with one declaring: "Never point your guitar at anyone. Your instrument has more clout than lightning."

Whether Malcolm Holcombe believes that or not it is clear he has a humble attitude to his writing as he says his songs are "just built through personal experiences and living my life with family and friends, and by the grace of the good Lord, I'm able to be of service and offer some stories."

The stories he offers here are nevertheless gripping again and form another formidably impressive record, one of the best of 2018 for me. We will be glad to hear many more such musical tales from this maestro.

Mike Ritchie