Malcolm Holcombe Tricks of the Trade Need To Know Proper Music
If Ray Wylie Hubbard is too mainstream, Malcolm Holcombe will most likely appeal.
Holcombe is a veritable outlier to the mainstream Americana industry. Despite little attention from the powers-that-be, including labels and radio, Holcombe has released a couple handfuls of albums over the years, working with stalwarts including Darrell Scott, Ray Kennedy, Iris DeMent (including an album of duets entitled Come Hell or High Water, released in 2018,) and Greg Brown. Consistently, Holcombe’s music has interested those seeking forbidding, primitive legitimacy in roots music.
Holcombe sings honestly of all matters of subject, but tends to favour examination of those most frequently forgotten and cast aside. When he sings of being “Stuck inside my head waitin’ on my payday” one accepts that no matter what comes his way, Holcombe isn’t going to find comfort riding the “Money Train.” Reflecting on loving relationships (as on “Lenora Cynthia”) Holcombe does so without fabrication of pretty ideals, his head a prison with a hardened floor and ramshackle steps. The poetic ambiguity of his chosen words is attractive, his narratives winding and challenging.
Shades of John Prine (“Misery Loves Company”) are revealed when Holcombe sings, “The bartender serves me one more broken heart.” The song’s refrain—“’Cause misery loves company when the neon’s burnin’ bright”—is both universally relevant and undeniably Holcombe. Insights pillorying politicians including “a dictator for a president” are revealed in “On Tennessee Land,” “Good Intentions,” and “Your Kin,” while hypocrisy of all forms is challenged within the title track, “Higher Ground,” and “Crazy Man Blues.”
If only the populace listened to prophecies of poets.
He has been working with veteran musicians Dave Roe (bass and co-producer with Brian Brinkerhoff) and Jared Tyler (Dobro, mandolin, electric guitar, as well as co-producer) for years, and their continued presence affords Holcombe’s albums, as here, a familiarity that listeners embrace. This time out, Holcombe’s vocals appear to be placed more assertively in the mix, and while the accompanying instrumentation is powerful Holcombe’s voice is given prominence. Mary Gauthier and Jaimee Harris provide backing vocals in a number of places, offering textures of depth and vitality.
As the songs of troubadours and folk singers have done for centuries, Malcolm Holcombe’s Tricks of the Trade sagely identifies the challenges we have created through collective actions (and inaction!) The solutions are obvious; are we willing to accept these and make the changes necessary to allow a society of honest fairness to develop? I doubt it, and I suspect Holcombe does, too. Many of us are too comfortable to take to the streets to facilitate and inflame change.
An intense and at times overpowering listen, Tricks of the Trade is as strong of an album as Holcombe’s I’ve encountered.