Malcolm Holcombe releases another gravelly blast from the shadows with Pretty Little Troubles, his new album produced with homespun grace by Darrell Scott. The pairing proves a fruitful one; Scott, a fine songwriter himself, seems to understand what kind of sonic geometries showcase Holcombe’s shades-of-grey songs best. Scott also organically fuses his own multi-instrumental skills with those of the other accomplished musicians behind Holcombe’s own acoustic guitar and scratchy rubber-on-the-road vocals.
Aptly for our times, Holcombe dedicates the album “to the dreams, sweat, and tears of all refugees and immigrants.” Many of the songs focus on the displaced, the dispossessed, the distressed. It opens with the bluesy, startlingly understated “Crippled Point O’ View,” inviting us to dive into the bottom of the barrel without delay. But after the explicit ode to immigrants in the beautiful “Yours No More” (see video below), powerful irony arises with the jaunty country-folk bounce of “Good Ole Days,” its jubilant hoedown dance beat sprinkled with images like “fifty cents a bloody day / no child labor laws / most them lil’ babies died / disease and alcohol.”
In other songs the lyrics flap under and over the flow of meaning, at moments bordering on the nonsensical to match the looseness of Holcombe’s singing. On a casual initial listen, you might wonder if melody has much importance in this opus. But the method to Holcombe’s shuffling madness becomes clearer with each track, elemental and intelligent musicality emerging in the grooves and melodies of the swing-waltz “South Hampton Street,” the bitter humor of “Damn Weeds,” and the riff-driven Irish balladry of “The Eyes O’ Josephine” with its uilleann whistles and pipes.
Amid the deceptively simple folksiness and cryptic lyrics of “Bury, England,” the images though vivid don’t give us a clue what the hell happened there. Holcombe uses the technique artfully. Don’t explain everything. Leave much to the imagination.
Yearning chord changes and lyrics make the gorgeous “Rocky Ground” the album’s pièce de resistance: “all i know and all i am / don’t matter anyhow / watchin’ you grow old and lovely / hungry to be found.” Yet in the half-mumbled closer “We Struggle” Holcombe shines a gloomier light on aging, returning to the theme of the lost and hopeless from the opening track: “Old and guilty / worried and sleepless…wishin’ children never grow old.” Holcombe creases a sense of decrepitude and weariness into his deliberately half-wrecked-sounding voice and uses both to pointed effect, speaking directly to the immigrant, the wanderer, the home-seeker in all of us.