A true roots eccentric makes hay with artful production.
Ninian Dunnett 2011
As Tom Waits’ voice is to Bing Crosby’s, so Malcolm Holcombe’s is to Tom Waits’: this is a wondrous far-travelled, beat-up and leaking old instrument, all sighs and groans, growls, rasps and mutterings (and that’s just in-between the singing).
Listen to a Holcombe song and what you’re getting is personality in spades, a narrative so gritty with the noise of tough living that it rarely dips below the red on the authenticity meter. But the thing that makes To Drink the Rain worth listening to, in fact, is its artistry.
The North Carolina native has changed labels and producers as restlessly as he’s moved homes, and this time round his long-serving slide guitar player Jared Taylor has crafted a production of superb balance, buttressing and cushioning the singer’s delivery with a subtlety that belies the single-take recording. The stately upright bass of Johnny Cash’s latter-day sideman Dave Roe, busy brushes of drummer Bobby Kallus, the sweet-toned fiddle of Luke Bulla and Taylor’s graceful picking on the dobro sparkle amongst the rumble and spit like bright stitching.
Holcombe’s sentiments are as grizzled as his vocal chords, steeped in the lore of hard times and lonely travelling, but there’s an idiosyncratic poetry bedded in the lyrics: "Way down in the woods touchin' moss so soft / On the deadwood dyin' in time's fertile arms…" The appealing musical range takes in the fingerpicking ragtime of One Leg at a Time (which kicks things off with cheery brio), while the bustle of Where I Don’t Belong has a compelling story-song insistence.
But the title-track is where everything comes together: a pounding, measured blues, it finds Holcombe channelling Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to irresistible effect, his howls and hollers driving the thumping beat to a gospel-tinged climax that makes the most perfect sense of that ancient curio of a voice.