One more collection of peerless Holcombe vignettes for the road.
Musicians often talk of their existential need to create. Making music, they say, is something essential to their being, it is not a choice they make but something they are compelled to do by some powerful yet indefinable inner force. In creating his 18th album, Malcolm Holcombe emerges as being at the vanguard of such a ‘duty-bound artists collective’ and has produced a powerful and urgent collection of songs that stand up there with anything in his career.
The artist’s urgent need to create in this case was hugely informed by Holcombe’s 2022 cancer diagnosis, after which he was determined to nurture this assortment of songs into presentable shape as quickly as possible. Along with long-time collaborator Jared Tyler he entered Asheville’s Echo Mountain studio and laid down ‘Bits and Pieces’ in quick time. Holcombe contributing his vocals and sublimely impulsive guitar and Tyler providing empathic accompaniment on dobro, lap steel, baritone guitar, electric guitar, mandola, tenor banjo, drums, percussion, and backing vocals. It is worth noting here the vital role that compadre Tyler plays in Holcombe’s creative process. His largely acoustic folk-blues-country-ish (in that order) accompaniment is masterfully precise and clear-cut whilst still sounding spontaneous and intuitive. As ever, these are unquestionably Holcombe’s songs but they are joint creations.
The urgency of ‘Bits and Pieces’ creation is palpable, with the songs making an immediate impression. All the fat has been stripped from the bone and we’re left with simply arranged pieces that gut-punch us one minute and move our body and spirit the next (thank you Greg Brown). These are tales of the American dark-side; of the dispossessed and the turned-out, of cultural and social attitudes that create suffering and of aberration and indifference. As our Reviewer Peter Churchill noted of Holcombe’s last album ‘Tricks of the Trade’ it is an “invaluable insight into the underbelly of the USA”. If this sounds unflinchingly bleak then it is important to note that which is often missed by those commenting on his work. Holcombe is never defeatist or fatalistic. His songs reverberate with a stoic humour and optimism that brings us back to them time and again.
Noth Holcombe’s writing and performance capture this worldview in such a way that we are affected by it but never able to fully grasp just what it is. He delivers poetically constructed vignettes that represent the struggles, confusions and joys of the people whose stories he tells, whilst retaining an air of mystery. These have been called “Malcolmisms” and on ‘Bits and Pieces’ there are many. We sense that “The hypocrites of poisoned concrete grow taller in their clay feet” from ‘Bring To Fly’ is warning us about con artists and imposturous industrialists, that when ‘I Been There’ notes “You can make a silk purse from an ol’ sow’s ear / You can polish a turd with some elbow grease… I know I been there all over again” we are cautioned to not take everything at face value and we just grasp that ‘Bits and Pieces’ antagonist “that preachin’ drunk slumlord, no tables and chairs, cash money for a flop house, two weeks in November” is not a good thing. The individual moments are clear but the overall message remains opaque. He seems like a good bloke, on the side of the angels, but beyond that we can’t be sure.
This enigmatic sense of mystery is something that endears him and his songs to a litany of A-list Americana artists. Emmylou, Lu W and Steve Earle, among many, are keen to sing Holcombe’s praises as a ‘songwriters’ songwriter’ but seem less keen to sing his songs. The way his weathered and world-weary voice completely inhabits them makes these songs intensely personal and difficult for others to interpret perhaps, as well as being just what makes them so engaging and meaningful to listeners.
It’s sometimes difficult to discern what a ‘great’ album is – this may be a great album. But at the least, it’s another exemplary slice of Holcombe that is undoubtedly part of a ‘great’ canon of Americana. If you’re not familiar with it yet this is a wonderfully engaging and rewarding place to start.