Maximum Volume Music - 23 May 2017

by- Andy Thorley


These are, whichever way you look at it, odd times. Over here the public continue their swing to the right of politics, and are on June 8th about to vote for a party that wants to stop free school meals for kids and take £100 off the elderly to give it to their fat cat mates, and over in America? Well over in America, with the greatest of respect to them, what the hell they were up to last Autumn only they know.

However, whichever side of the political debate you are on (and I think this half of MV at least has just nailed its colours to the mast above) one thing we can all agree on is that times need to be reflected upon by the songwriters of the time. Not for nothing, after all did Woody Guthrie have a guitar with the legend, “this machine kills fascists scrawled upon it.”

Into that particular breach steps Malcolm Holcombe, with his fifteenth studio album, “Pretty Little Troubles.”  An acclaimed contemporary of Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle, Holcombe has shared the stage with Merle Haggard, Richard Thompson, John Hammond and Leon Russell, and there are elements of their work here, without actually sounding like any of them.

Instead, his take on traditional folk, blues and country, combines with a weather-worn voice to create something quite superb.

Never better, actually, than on “Good Old Days”. “50 cents a bloody day, no child labour laws. Most them little babies died, disease and alcohol.” He offers, as if to suggest that harking back to some golden age is pointless – if it ever existed anyway.

A beguiling collection sucks you slowly and cautiously in. The haunting harmonica lick of “Crippled Point Of View” betrays an immense sense of restlessness, while “Yours No More” is as harsh a condemnation of current political climate in his homeland (Holcombe is a North Carolina native) as you will find.

Capable of conveying such emotion with the imagery his lyrics contain, “Outta Luck” has a lovelorn quality, while the dark folk of “South Hampton Street” makes that one a real highlight. “Rocky Ground” with its mournful Lap Steel has echoes of Steve Earle at his most weary and the blues of the title track is classic in every sense of the word.

There are hints of Dylan about the wonderful “Bury, England” and the good people of the Lancashire town might not want to use it as their theme tune, but the poetic nature of what Holcombe does is shown best on work like “Damn Weeds” while the Celtic side, which is never too far away, is right to the fore, throughout the superb “The Eyes O’ Josephine”.

A longer record than many these days at 13 tracks, there are some flourishes with strings and something of a chug about “The Sky Stood Still” and it ends with another of its more varied moments, with “We Struggle” which has something of the widescreen about it.

Now more than ever, the world needs great singer songwriters and on “Pretty Little Troubles” Malcolm Holcombe proves exactly why you need him. A record that might not immediately reveal its charms to you, is nonetheless one that – if you invest the time in it – is one to cherish.