Malcolm Holcombe, For the Mission Baby
Malcolm Holcombe isn't for everybody. In a minor key, his grey, gravelly voice can sound like an extended death rattle. His new CD opens with the insistent plod and slightly too-loud bass of "Bigtime Blues," with nearly unintelligible lyrics, as if Holcombe is daring you to plunge in to something dangerous. "Hannah's Tradin' Post," about an abandoned gold mining settlement, drily evokes the emptiness of a ghost town. Listening to these songs, you have to lean in to understand what's going on. This is a good thing.
On disc, you don't get the benefit of Holcombe's hyper-physical presence, his shaggy, almost violent guitar attack, or the full measure of his humor – for those, catch him live. But this CD, with its unstoppable beats, David Roe's pounding upright bass, and the sere plinking of Holcombe's 1950 Gibson J-45 acoustic guitar, is a respectable approximation.
Though his songs take traditional forms, his sound and his outlook make Holcombe a true original. His strange singing style can suggest or even verge on the abstract, but there's a canny and fully engaged songwriting sensibility underlying that effect. He can play nice and accuse at the same time: "I ain't got what I want / Never enough / But I got what I need… I ain't got what I want / You have it all." There's lyricism in the almost pastoral "Doncha Miss That Water" and humor in the jaunty "Short Street Blues": "Honey make some coffee, pack up the boxes / Pick your panties up off that floor / We ain't living on Short Street anymore."
There are themes here too – missions, a tentative sort of salvation, and "someone left behind." The waltz "Whenever I Pray" resembles "Satisfied Mind," but rather than ending the disc on that triumphant note, he closes it with a sad song about abandonment – which nevertheless allows that "there's better days ahead." "There's one who does the hurtin' / Two who feel the pain." Gravelly voice and all, this troubadour has a way with a song. If a mix of the raw and the lyrical is your kind of brew, this disc should satisfy. And go see him live if you ever have the chance.
Jeff Norwood, Awendaw
Jeff Norwood's clear tenor and spare, clean guitar sound are a little atypical for Delta blues, a style which white artists often deliver with intentional gruffness. Intriguingly, Norwood's fresh-faced sound feels more real, less studied, than the efforts of some rougher-edged bluesmen. A big part of it is the down-home sense of fun in this set of ten original songs. Instead of worriedly trying his hardest to overtake a retreating "authenticity," Norwood writes and plays what inspires and delights him, and nothing else. Just the titles suggest this sensibility: "Bad Ass Boogie," "Walking Catfish Blues," "Horny Road." "Way up past the strip malls, back to the piney woods / Find a Horny Road somewhere baby that's gonna do us both some good."
He often sings of salvation, damnation, and sex, just like an old-time blues artist, and occasionally tries too hard to be elemental ("Shake"), but hits the nail dead-on in "The Devil": "It all seems much too easy / With Satan by your side / Once he gets inside you boy you're down for sure." The blues scale was meant for lines like this and Norwood matches it up perfectly. Another top track is "Kokomo," where he lets loose with a howl, sliding his voice all over the liquid growl of his slide guitar. It's followed by "Deep and Cold," a surprisingly convincing paean to the peace found only in death; then the disc closes by rocking out with "Save My Wicked Soul." It's not that the best songs are at the end; it's that this is that rare disc that intensifies as it goes along.
Various Artists, España from Putumayo World Music
Here's an easygoing but fascinating survey of music from many of Spain's culturally distinct regions. The selections come mostly from recent albums, some by new artists, others by elder statesmen like Peret, "the Elvis of rumba catalana," whose "Para Poder Olvidarla" is a good choice to open the disc. The song sets the tone with a typical flamenco acoustic guitar line, then flowers into an amplified jam, flowing through the decades but never losing its surefooted rhythm. Fans of the Gipsy Kings will recognize Peret as an influence on that popular French-Catalan band. Other eminences include the Galician Uxía, whose Danza Ritual features staccato, slightly sinister-sounding piano and horns; the Basque artist Xabier Lete, whose wistfully romantic "San Martin, Azken Larrosa" has a gentle jazzy flavor; and Fernando Burgos who hails from Valencia. The latest generation of Spanish musicians is represented by songs like the soulful "Lunita" by the 21st century band Calima, with its jazz-fusion flavor, and the Afropop- and reggae-influenced "Te Estás Equivocando" by Gecko Turner, who comes from the Extremadura region. Such multi-national grooves, some modern, others old, play through many of these tracks. Listening to this disc is like eating a tasty paella – lots of zesty flavors cooked into one big circular world of goodness.