Praise be the world when, in the midst of a pandemic and other shit storms, a new Malcolm Holcombe album arrives. It’s like a rock to hold onto as mayhem rushes by, with Holcombe’s gruff voice, his command of visceral country blues, and lyrical acuity, sure to hold you fast.
Tricks Of The Trade is classic Holcombe – raw, sinewy and vibrant. He growls magnificently over a set of songs, which, on this occasion, are amped up somewhat while never letting go of his North Carolina roots. He’s aided by long time companions, Jared Tyler and Dave Roe with Roe’s son, Jerry, taking on the drum role, and together they rustle up a mighty rumble. While it’s Holcombe’s voice and words that are first and foremost, it’s the hustle and bustle of the stringed instruments – guitar, slide, Dobro – snaking throughout the album which capture attention. At times the interplay is quite hypnotic as on the Townes Van Zandt like Damn Rainy Day which, for this reviewer, could have lasted for twice as long and still tempt one to press the replay button.
It’s timeless music, as old as the hills but bang up to date also as Holcombe addresses some issues of the day. Crazy Man Blues doesn’t go so far as to name the man but it’s evident who Holcombe is weighing into here. The opening Money Train is suffused with blues and gospel as it satirises the worship of Mammon and Your Kin is surely a condemnation of US border forces as they straddle Mexico and separate families.
Elsewhere, Holcombe just waxes wonderfully on eternal themes. On Tennessee Land is akin to Woody Guthrie’s dustbowl ballads while Misery Loves Company is a rare upbeat number belying its title, as Holcombe and crew (including backing singer Mary Gauthier) turn in a joyous country number. There’s more joy to be had in the title song which uses a circus theme to suggest that we are still in thrall to the bread and circuses the Romans used to placate their citizens. If Holcombe is suggesting that his songs are just a similar trick of the trade, the discerning listener would surely refute that. You need to dig deep to find artists of the calibre of Holcombe, even within these days of music on demand, and, once found, he is surely more than mere entertainment. Dig deep and dig him so that this breed of tried and true truth tellers and musicians can survive.