Malcolm Holcombe – new album and tour
In the end, who can explain the secret of endurance? Why does one marriage last and another does not? Why does one song or album catch our ear while others, arguably as good, slip past us? What convinces an artist or musician to continue pursuing the craft in a time of audiences with short attention spans and diminishing financial returns?
On the eve of releasing Another Black Hole, his fourteenth album (including a duet album cut with North Carolina music legend Sam Milner back in the 80s), Malcolm Holcombe is in no mood to ponder such things. “They’re free to like it or change the CD or completely ignore it,” he says over the telephone from New Haven, CT. “It all depends on how bad their conscience is.”
Those who have paid attention to Holcombe’s music will find more of what they expect here: Holcombe’s rasping vocals and bright, percussive guitar accentuating his insightful lyrics. A few of Holcombe’s longtime musical compatriots show up to help him out, most notably Jared Tyler, who plays guitar, banjo, mandolin, dobro and offers background harmonies and rock solid rhythm section David Roe on bass and Ken Coomer on drums. Swamp pop legend Tony Joe White plays electric guitar on a number of cuts, including the hard rocking ‘Papermill Man’, and the visionary percussionist Futureman, also known as Roy Wooten, inventor of the drumitar, lends percussion on several cuts. Drea Merritt drops by to sing harmonies as well.
Last year, Holcombe released The RCA Sessions, a retrospective of his two decades of recordings. For most of this time, Malcolm has handled his own career from his hometown of Swannanoa, NC, a few miles down the road from Weaverville, where he was born in 1955. Another Black Hole does not indicate a change of direction for Holcombe, only a widening and deepening of the groove he has worked for most of his years playing and singing. Lyrically, the songs mingle Holcombe’s off the cuff wisdom and sharp-eyed commentary on the human condition. Without staking a political or spiritual position, Holcombe’s songs make it clear that he sees his place with those who suffer at the end of the “suits and ties in the cubicles”, as he sings in ‘To Get By’. But because he sees things in human terms and in the terms of survival, Holcombe heads down to “Rice’s Grocery down on Main Street/ We got credit there.”
Ray Kennedy, who has produced several of Malcolm’s albums, including Another Black Hole, says,
“Malcolm Holcombe is fiercely striking every time you encounter him on or off stage. You just get sucked into his extraordinary world of the twisting of words and wisdom that come from a bottomless well. The melodies and fierce rhythms wrap his narrative into an event where you find yourself at his unique musical carnival. Then suddenly he slays you with a sweet love ballad or a sarcastic social commentary.”
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. But he is far less interested in talking about his own songs than in talking about other musicians whose names come up in the course of a conversation.
When country singing legend Don Williams is mentioned, Malcolm says, “I used to listen to that Portrait album all the time”, and asks if Williams played a couple of his more popular songs in a recent concert. He also speaks fondly of Les Paul and, later, of Keith Richards: “He’s rock and roll all day long, ain’t he?”
Recently Warren Haynes, another musician native to western North Carolina, has mentioned Malcolm’s name in interviews. Typically, Holcombe was unaware of this, but filled with praise for Haynes.
“He’s a real gentleman. I’m glad to call him a friend”, he says. “He taught me how to bend a string on a guitar.”
Chances are that Another Black Hole will not be mentioned at Grammy time, but it is a strong addition to an ever-strengthening catalogue of music made by a humble craftsman in western North Carolina. “It is Malcolm’s perception of the world that make his songs hit you like a gunpowder blast. His gruff and tough delivery is a primordial power full of grit, spit and anthropomorphic expression”, says Ray Kennedy. Trends come and go. What is real is the ground beneath our feet, the sky above us, the struggle to earn a living. These are Malcolm Holcombe’s timeless subjects and the spin he puts on them makes our journey here more bearable.
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Artist’s website: www.malcolmholcombe.com
MALCOLM HOLCOMBE: ANOTHER BLACK HOLE (GYPSY EYES MUSIC)
Best Country Music Albums of 2016
With his raspy voice and gritty songwriting, Malcolm Holcombe reeks of authentic Americana. I liked To Get By, an ironic lamentation on the American Dream. Jared Tyler offers fine support on guitar and Drea Merritt serves up some lovely vocal harmonies. September is a bleak talking song but the highlight is Another Black Hole, with the lines "the radio plays for the happy-go-lucky/That ain't my set o' wheels." ★★★☆☆
As the New Year gets into its stride it's an early start for what will inevitably be one of 2016s highlights. For many years now every new release from Malcolm Holcombe has been anticipated as perhaps his best ever and maybe even his career defining album? Such was the case with this tremendous recording that has all of his usual hallmarks of high quality writing, hugely evocative vocals, exquisite melodies and an all round edginess that whilst natural to this man, is something few others can achieve. It's only when you perhaps listen to some of his other recent albums that you realize that it is not so much a case of being his best or 'career defining' but is actually more a question of maintaining a peerless standard that you can't help but feel is not really humanly possible!
We all talk about genres of music and the difficulty with some albums of trying to give the record buyer a comparison that will help them decide on whether to purchase a recording (or not!) but as with his considerable back catalogue there is no other artist that Malcolm can be compared to. Certainly there is a lot of country music, blues, folk and probably much more, even including on occasions a little old timey 'front porch' music in what he does. The problem with giving him a label is that all of these various genres are mixed together in varying degrees with perhaps individual songs leaning a little closer to one genre or another but never exclusively so making it impossible to slot him into a nice comfortable genre.
It is obvious to his ever increasing band of listeners that Malcolm is a man who writes without any thought of genre, simply getting his often poetic story songs, many of them cloaked in darkness, out to the listener and leaving any labelling up to them. His style is completely natural and totally lacking in any artifice ensuring he is not only unique but also powerfully compelling, dredging sympathy out of the listener that most other vaguely similar artists struggle to get anywhere near. He has the ability to write appealing, memorable melodies that often have a lovely light feel and amalgamate them with some deep dark, but thoughtful, lyrics with his always raw vocal style contrasting beautifully with those melodies.
Malcolm wrote all ten of the songs on this album that vary from hard hitting darkness to tender ballads, all composed with his usual blend of extraordinary descriptive writing and high quality literacy. Whilst he is not an avid user of metaphor, some of his songs can take time to unravel and it is that which adds depth to the recording and repays the listener for his/her patience, a state of affairs that has existed throughout his career.
The album was produced by Ray Kennedy, a man who has taken over production duties on a few of Malcolm's albums so is well versed in the intricacies of this true originals musical requirements. It is not only the producer who has become a regular, with help also coming in the form of a number of top notch musicians who have worked with Malcolm before. There is Jared Tyler on guitar, banjo, mandolin, dobro and backing vocals, David Roe on bass and Ken Coomer on drums, with Tony Joe White playing electric guitar on many of the tracks and Roy Wooten adding his percussive flair.
The album opener, Sweet Georgia gets things going with banjo, guitar and percussion eventually joined by the dobro on a song that musically at least has an easy rolling feel although it is in fact a sad tale of loss. Malcolm's vocal seems, despite the usual raw edge, to have taken on more warmth on this sad reflective, musically upbeat tale. This is followed by the deep dark Another Black Hole, where the seedy side of life on the wrong side of the tracks is accepted as the norm, with driving bass, percussion and a sinister sounding electric guitar on a darkly atmospheric tale on which his vocals are at their raw and most evocative best and the arrangement equally full of darkness. Next up is To Get By, another easy rolling tale musically, with thudding bass, tuneful guitar and percussion on a song that is reminiscent, at least for me, of Guy Clark. Don't Play Around is propelled by a deep powerful bass, percussion and dobro on a dark swampy tale, with his seemingly whiskey soaked vocal full of an almost sinister gravel on a tale that pulls no punches. Finally, Papermill Man is led by a thudding percussion and electric guitar giving the song a swamp rock feel in much the same way as classic Tony Joe White, although there is more darkness to Malcolm's music and his straining vocal creates a much mistier, sinister atmosphere, with some tremendous female harmonies dragging the song towards a powerful New Orleans feel.
So, is this album his best ever or maybe even career defining? It's tempting to say it is but that would be because the songs are still relatively new to me and would be a putdown of everything that has gone before. The fact is that every album he has made for many years is his best ever and each of these tremendous recordings defines this genuinely unique musician's career.
Malcolm Holcombe is the Truest Troubadour
For all the darkness in Malcolm Holcombe’s signature rasp, his newest record is a bright and shiny bluesy country rock gem. Don’t let the title, Another Black Hole, deceive you – this album’s sound is anything but. The guitar chords are warm and so is Holcombe’s vocal performance, from the upbeat opening track “Sweet Georgia” to the blue collar tale “Papermill Man.” The songs on Hole move at a brisk pace, with driving guitar melodies.
Holcombe has a knack for exploring the depths of the working class life, good and bad. He is a storyteller, and his songs have history. “Papermill Man” in particular, captures the gritty banalities of mill work in a vivid, descriptive way: “Smoke blowing up in the air/One room shack/One room school…Sawmill sawdust stuck in your lungs/And your head can’t hear the thunder,” he sings, transporting us to this one-horse town that sucks its people in. Holcombe has always been a classic troubadour, a little rough around the edges, no frills and as authentic as it gets.
“Leavin’ Anna” is one of the best examples of Holcombe’s narrative touch. “We traveled where the money was good…A workin’ man is a workin’ man,” he sings, setting a somewhat depressing tale of paycheck to paycheck life to a guitar tune that will make you feel light-hearted and hopeful. That is the trick at play on Hole: you may be distracted by the buoyant melodies so much so that you forget the often gloomy subject matter. For instance, “To Get By” is another tune about scraping by on a meager supply. His acute attention to detail (grocery lists on a Frigidaire; the local store on Main St. where you’ve still got credit) gives the song a sense of identity and atmosphere that personalizes it. Holcombe is a master at this, and Hole proves why.
BY MAERI FERGUSON , STAFF REVIEWER
FEBRUARY 11, 2016
Malcolm Holcombe – Another Black Hole: dystopian but uplifting country soul
“The radio plays for the happy- go-lucky / That ain’t my set of wheels . . .” The years are not making Malcolm Holcombe’s outlook any sunnier.
Yet this craggy country soul songsmith defies his dystopian demeanour with a spirited, even uplifting, set that peels back his grim North Carolina childhood and fragments of what followed.
At their best, there is a colourful grittiness in Holcombe’s often opaque stories that, allied to sweet melody, creates a haunting synthesis.
His nicotine-scarred voice is no easy listen, but it adds drama and a sense of honesty.
Producers Ray Kennedy and Brian Brinkerhoff empathise with a warm, subtle soundscape that makes use of top-notch players such as Tony Joe White and fellow six-string shaper Jared Tyler.
Drea Merritt’s harmonies also shine. Tracks of note include Sweet Georgia, the title track and Papermill Man.
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.