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Malcom Holcombe

For the Mission Baby – 2009 (Echo Mountain)

Reviewed by Rick Cornell

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CDs by Malcom Holcombe

Western North Carolina's Malcolm Holcombe is a unique performer. He takes to the stage with a chair that he might as well kick away 30 seconds in and with a stare that looks a mile past you even as it's lasering through your core. He's got a 1950 Gibson guitar that can moan the most mournful country blues or hum the most joyous love song. And he's got the long-journey voice to handle both.

But unique only gets you so far without songs. Not to worry: Holcombe's got songs, always has. And the back half of this latest collection - starting with the jaunty, vaguely Celtic title track - represents Holcombe at his most accessible and most disarmingly direct in terms of both music and message. (Holcombe, no doubt, would want to share the credit with Ray Kennedy's uncluttered production.)

On Another One Gone and Doncha Miss That Water - the former blessed with Tim O'Brien's fiddle, the latter with Mary Gauthier's harmonies - Holcombe softens his down-the-road gaze and locks in for a real front-porch conversation eased along by folk-rock at its most rustic. Someone Left Behind offers Holcombe's most quotable chorus in the form of "There's one who does the hurtin'/Two feel the pain/One who takes the train/Another takes the blame," but the record's most memorable creation is Whenever I Pray, a striking bit of mountain-church gospel. And even when a song like Bigtime Blues seems to exist only for Holcombe to pick and growl, the smoldering emotion is undeniable. And you get to bask in the wood smoke it trails.