Wrinkly-voiced troubadour Malcolm Holcombe is back with a beautifully played new album of songs made of equal parts warm gravel, snakebite acid, and sweet melodies. There’s no easy living in the lyrics. As the narrator of the title track sings, “the radio plays for the happy go lucky / that ain’t my set o’ wheels.”
The best outcome these songs project is acceptance: “the grass is always greener/on my neighbor’s property” sighs the poet of the deceptively bouncy-sounding “To Get By,” with its frustrated refrain, “the power of the youth runs by and by / stuck in a revolving door.”
Driven by Holcombe’s rolling acoustic guitar, Tony Joe White’s ominous electric, Jared Tyler’s multi-instrumental string prowess, and an earthy rhythm section, these songs take on the greatest human troubles of our times, wielding the musical arsenal of Americana, folk, country, and rock. The spoken-word “Don’t Play Around,” the gutsiest track on this gutsy album, indicts income inequality. “Someone Missing” bewails troubled human relationships. Holcombe elevates the grind of hard work and poverty into something mysterious and transcendent in the rough-rocking “Papermill Man.” And he evokes the ruins of war in “Heidelberg Blues,” whose sad simplicity reminds me of Townes Van Zandt; gentle, folky verses sweep chillingly down into unexpected, smoky minor chords.
Holcombe’s modus operandi may be most starkly revealed in the opening track, “Sweet Georgia.” The contrast between the pastoral tune and the decidedly sour imagery set a sharp-eyed, doubtful tone that persists throughout this concise set of 10 songs, jumping into sharp relief again in the folky, sweet-sounding “Leavin’ Anna,” whose imagery moves from “a delicate flower” to drowning flood victims. Meanwhile, the dreamy acoustic guitar of “September” calls to mind Richard Thompson, while the melody and not entirely decipherable lyrics strike a dusky prog-rock tone that’s dead-to-rights American.
American places appear throughout – Texas, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, Philadelphia. But wherever you live, if you’re a fan of Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, or American roots music in general, you’ll very likely dig Another Black Hole.