American Songwriter - February 2016
Another Black Hole
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
His croak of a voice makes Tom Waits sound like James Taylor, but blues-folkie Malcolm Holcombe has used it to his advantage to craft over a dozen albums during the past two decades. They feature his distinctive whisky-laced gravel vocals over an earthy, generally acoustic approach. As you can imagine, Holcombe isn’t singing many tender love songs and this disc’s title, along with its cover drawing of a skeletal corpse being eaten away by rats, prepares the listener for another set of dark, gritty songs about those that are down and mostly out.
With production, engineering, mixing and mastering from Ray Kennedy (Steve Earle, Billy Joe Shaver) and a backing band consisting of veterans like Tony Joe White and drummer Ken Coomer (Wilco, Uncle Tupelo), Holcombe spins 10 tales that mix country, bluegrass, blues and folk in a musky, dusky yet surprisingly melodic concoction. Add the singer’s poetic, raw-edged lyrics that, along with his weathered voice, make every shadowy story sound as if he’s recounting it first hand, for another quality title in an expanding catalog that has never followed a traditional path.
Even if the music is slightly brighter as in the opening “Sweet Georgia” led by Jared Tyler’s banjo, Holcombe’s concepts stay ominous with visions of “small town darkness” and “angry eyes starin’.” The title track tells of a homeless wanderer as the singer growls over Tony Joe White’s grimy slide atop a swamp groove you can sink into up to your waist. Things get greasy on the harrowing “Don’t Play Around” with Holcombe moaning about “Annie settin’ in jail for another 12 years/ya know it coulda’ been me,” you sense this may be based on personal experience. Creepy backing vocals from Drea Merritt bring additional bone chilling atmosphere.
Clearly this is not for the squeamish, even when Holcombe rocks out like the Stones taking a one way trip to hell on “Papermill Man.” But it’s not strictly for the converted either because for all the gloomy, rusted out yet impeccably crafted lyrics, the music feels lived in, alive and real. Holcombe might not be telling his life stories but it seems like he is, which makes this one of the more immediate entries into his impressively edgy catalog. Fans of Waits, White, Ray Wylie Hubbard, James McMurtry and other troubadours of the troubled should naturally gravitate to Holcombe whose adventurous wordsmithing and tough, blue collar storytelling are easily on par with the finest of his peers.