North East Music Monthly - February 3, 2016
This is the 14th studio album from Malcolm Holcombe and it’s clear after one listen to his gravelly baritone voice that he has served his time out on the highway of life. Last year he put out a gripping retrospective, ’The RCA Sessions’, with dramatic re-recordings of some of his better known songs alongside a group of brilliant musicians that reminded us all what a unique talent he remains. This new album was produced by Grammy-winning producer and engineer Ray Kennedy and Brian Brinkerhoff. ’Another Black Hole’ features Holcombe’s trademark rasping vocals and bright, percussive guitar accentuating his insightful lyrics. It was recorded at Room & Board Studios in Nashville, and the 10-song set features longtime musical compatriots including Jared Tyler (dobro, baritone guitar, banjo, mandolin and harmony vocals), Dave Roe (upright and electric bass), Ken Coomer (drums and percussion), Tony Joe White (electric guitar), Future Man (percussion) and Drea Merritt (vocal harmony).
The album kicks off in fine style with ‘Sweet Georgia’ with Malcolm’s unique voice to the fore and the musicians kicking up a quiet storm behind him with a strutting banjo and a string bass that powers things along and a dobro cutting through. It has a wonderful relaxed groove that never out stays its welcome, in short its a perfect opener with a terrific summery vibe. That’s quickly followed by the slower paced title track ‘Another Black Hole’ that has the impressive slide guitar of Tony Joe White threading a dangerous path through it (Mr White wrote ‘Polk Salad Annie’ covered by Elvis Presley fact fans). It sounds menacing and spooky with the female vocal providing a distant banshee wail that rolls through the chorus making it an early highlight. The musicians here are wonderful and the sound is clear and true.’To Get By’ is a song about struggling through the mundanities of life on a shoe string and gets my vote for simply mentioning a ‘fridgidaire’ and using the phrase “high falutin'”. The guitar chimes and there’s a prominent mandolin sprucing things up alongside, as ever, Malcolm’s croaking weather beaten voice.
The course for the album is pretty much set by this third tune but it’s all high class stuff and if you like your country with a touch of the rough edges of Kris Kristofferson’s cowboy outlaw material then you’ll find much to enjoy here. Holcombe has a keen ear to twist the odd phrase that gives it an edge you don’t hear that often. It’s never overdone and the band are constantly superb, possessing some of the oddness that Tom Waits’ musicians add to his records though, perhaps, in a slightly more mainstream way. ‘Papermill Man’ rocks along nicely and again features Tony Joe White on scintillating steamy slide guitar. It also features the visionary percussionist Futureman, also known as Roy Wooten, inventor of the drumitar, who lends percussion on this and several other cuts. Drea Merritt drops by to sing sweet harmonies across the album as well. 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.
Perhaps what makes this album stand out is the sheer quality of the songs and the quality musicians alongside Holcombe’s lived-in voice that drips with world weary melancholia as he looks back over shattered lives and old memories, but it makes a potent stew that’s well worth getting a taste for and, if you are a novice, there’s a veritable feast of a back catalogue to sample after this. Go and eat at his table!
You can see Malcolm Holcombe live at Cluny, Newcastle on 19th May 2016