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To Drink the Rain

Malcolm Holcombe

February 16, 2011 Comments: 0

Being mentioned in the same breath as Townes Van Zandt is no mean feat; it suggests an over-familiarity with hard liquor, hard luck and hard-won knowledge of the other side of town. Approaching To Drink the Rain, therefore, is not without a weight of expectation –  tales of suffering and calloused lives should be par for the course. Right?
 
Absolutely. This is an album chock-full of small -town observations. Ghosts walk close and there is a darkness that bubbles away just beneath the surface making for a fascinating aural journey. “Those Who Wander” contains echoes of Steve Earle’s outing with the Del McCoury band. “Becky’s Blessed (Backporch Flowers)” is a pleasant, lazily meandering stream of observations, while “One man singin’” is a hugely compelling true-to-life tale that somehow succeeds in skipping along jauntily despite bearing the weight of the world on its shoulders.
 
There is something elemental about this record; it seems, somehow, to tap into the old, weird America etched onto the wax of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. The timeless feel of some of Holcombe’s material would sit well beside the field hollers and murder ballads on the earlier compilation. The real air of a live recording is fitting therefore. Obviously, being a modern record, it lacks the hiss of reel-to-reel and incidental noise in the hot southern sun that characterised Smith’s recordings but, nonetheless, many of the tracks have the ‘one-take’ energy and excitement of a band in blistering form. The featured musicians do a sterling job switching seamlessly from vicious to pretty but always put the song first. Prominent dobro and fiddle really country things up, while judicious use of mandolin lends a backwoods, bluegrass sensibility in places.
 
Where Holcombe’s world-weary growl really comes into its own is on slower numbers. The Greg Brown-like “Mountains of Home” is a truly beautiful number. “Comes the Blues” sits atop an endless freight train somewhere way out west where the wind cuts waves through the wheat and the grizzled narrator takes a long, cold retrospective at the broken promises of America.
 
This is an album populated with subtly catchy choruses that worm their way into the consciousness. Like John Lee Hooker, Holcombe avoids obvious rhymes and wrong-foots the listener. There are unanswered questions aplenty that will draw the curious back for answers time and again. Superior stuff.
 
UK Release: March 7
 
Cate Mitchell
 


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