To nick the subtitle of a recent collection of essays on Texas songwriters,1 Malcolm Holcombe’s approach to songcraft is “ruthlessly poetic.” Holcombe’s latest, the Marco Giovino-produced Come Hell or High Water (Singular Recordings), marks the 13th in a string of dependably strong collections bearing Holcombe’s distinct, darkly Appalachian imprint.
Featuring Iris DeMent and Greg Brown on vocals and backed by Giovino on drums along with Holcombe’s long-time multi-instrumental accompanist Jared Tyler, High Water showcases Holcombe’s trademark strengths as a songwriter and uniquely expressive vocalist. The arrangements are simple, uncluttered and tasteful, with the aforementioned collaborators providing exquisite sweet-and-sour coloring by turns. Giovino’s steady hand ensures that the supporting cast provides the right accents and never gets in the way of Holcombe’s inimitable, gravel road-evoking voice and percussive finger-picking. DeMent’s plaintive, occasionally breathy soprano harmonies in particular are the perfect complement to Holcombe’s wet baritone rasp, while Tyler’s quietly weeping slide-dobro licks stand out while never crowding the scene.
As always, Holcombe’s songs are peppered with telling details, startling twists of phrase and defiantly fierce moments of truth-telling. The lyrics here are darkly, often bitterly incisive; at times verging on inscrutability, they are always powerfully evocative. Though the openers “Left Alone” and “I Don’t Want to Disappear Anymore” are quieter in tone than many of the other tunes, there’s not a clunker in the bunch, and the best of them are compelling in the classic Holcombe way. Highlights include the bluesy “It Is What It Is,” with its kick-drum breakdowns reminiscent of the Stones’“Satisfaction”; “Old North Side,” featuring Tyler’s soulful slide-dobro and Brown’s rousing accompaniment on the choruses; the mournfully upbeat “Gone By The Ol’ Sunrise”; and the stunning closer, “Torn and Wrinkled.”
High Water includes some scathing socio-political commentary as well. Holcombe condemns the “billionaire barbarians” and “limousine liars” whose “old money drags the poor man down / New Damnation Alley,” lamenting how “Truth takes a whipping like a beaten boy’s screams.” In the mandolin-flecked “Black Bitter Moon,” a Biloxi bartender bitterly watches young men “shove off to the ocean fly up to the sky,” quietly bemoaning that there “ain’t a drop or lick o’ sense in Washington’s mind.” “That old black, bitter moon hangs over my head,” she sighs, “Come hell or high water / Comes the rain and the dread.” “Legal Tender” convicts both “them trailer-meth labs around the corner” that “make all the money” and the “pharmaceuticals that paint the sky” and “fill the cemeteries.” “As best I can tell,” Holcombe laments, “morphine’s legal tender.”
The collection climaxes with a final-four sequence of alternating DeMent and Brown duets (“Brother’s Keeper” and “In the Winter”), followed by the bittersweetly nostalgic “Merry Christmas” (“I never got what I wanted / I never kept what I got”), and the memorably melodic closer “Torn and Wrinkled.” With its wistful litany of lost opportunities and bygone memories — “Forgive me, when I turn away / And I mumble to the floor / The perfect words are gone for sure, / And the mirror’s torn and wrinkled” — the last serves as a powerful, apt closer for this beautifully melancholic collection.
Whether you’re new to Holcombe or a long-time follower, you’ll want to have and hold this one. It can be purchased directly at:
1 Clifford, Craig E. and Craig Hillis, Pickers and Poets: The Ruthlessly Poetic Singer- Songwriters of Texas. College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press, 2016.