Slowly but surely North Carolina bred singer and songwriter Malcolm Holcombe has carved a reputation over the years as a fine purveyor of rootsy country blues with his albums and live shows almost universally praised. Despite this he remains a bit of a hidden gem, known only to the cognoscenti but there’s a chance this might change with the release of this, his ninth album.
Having been on several labels (including Geffen who refused to release the album he recorded for them) he’s self released Down The River and it’s a measure of the respect he’s held in that he’s gathered a grand set of musicians to assist him. The band include Darrell Scott, Ken Coomer and Viktor Krauss while vocals are supplied by Kim Richey, Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle. In addition the album is produced by Steve Earle’s sometime producer Ray Kennedy. The result is a stellar collection of songs that feature Holcombe’s amazing growl of a voice and his deft guitar picking with truckloads of banjo, steel guitar, mandolin, fiddle and Dobro backing him up. The effect is very similar to that of Earle’s “come back” album Train A Coming.
In addition to the excellent playing Holcombe writes with a fine sense of anger at the modern ways of the world railing against injustice but also celebrating the eternal optimism of the human spirit most pointedly in The Crossing, one of the more tender songs here. With some fine lilting fiddle this is a beautiful spiritual lament. The Door continues in this vein as Holcombe reins in his voice while pedal steel (by Russ Pahl) glides and weaves. Both of these songs are cloaked in mystery as Holcombe sings of people who seem to be lost and desolate but who are buttressed by hope and pride. The starkness of The Empty Jar is the culmination of this; delicate guitar and viola paint a lonely picture as Holcombe sings “an empty jar but full of eyes/ that see you here pourin’ perfect comfort /for thirsty silent tears.” The effect is similar to the grim determination seen in the photography of Dorothea Lange. The duet with Emmylou Harris In Your Mercy is lighter in its delivery but again tells of an abandoned soul clinging to pride and memories.
All of these songs are beautiful and had the album stuck with this style it would be very impressive indeed. However Holcombe adds a topping of righteous indignation and launches his full bear growl on a clutch of songs that damn those in control who cause misery and loss. Butcher In Town opens the album like a boxer jumping out on the bell. Darrell Scott’s Dobro is excellent here as Holcombe proclaims “I don’t claim a thing/not a two bit clue/but somebody whispered/war kills the truth” while on Twisted Arms he almost spits out the words. Whitewash Job nails the politicians with an undisguised glee with Holcombe sounding not unlike Baby Gramps with his piratical “har hars” over a fine chugging rhythm. The duet with Steve Earle, Trail O’ Money is the most direct diatribe as Holcombe declares “all the noise from the crowd/breakin’ hearts with deceit/all you war hungry bastards/bloodthirsty with greed.” Despite the vitriol in the words the song itself is a wonderful recreation of the sound of Bob Dylan circa 1970 with lonesome harp and a nice country lope. Holcombe sums up the album and his thoughts on the closing title song, a fine old fashioned number with female backing vocals and an uplifting beat as he sings “the hard times makes us stronger to get by/and leave this world behind/down the river.”
Originally posted on Blabber'n'Smoke