Malcolm Holcombe's voice leaves him sounding much like an ancient Mississippi bluesman for much of "Pretty Little Troubles." (In fact, the album's title cut is an acoustic blues workout that previews what John Hiatt might well sound like, say, 30 years from now). Holcombe even gets into character, playing the role of what sounds like a sharecropper's fate during "Rocky Ground," where this characteristic working man sings of both tobacco fields and loved ones. The latter also trades in acoustic blues for something a little more country, as the track is highlighted by steel guitar and harmonica.
"Pretty Little Troubles" isn't exactly what one would term an uplifting work. Many of these musical sketches are put to bluesy grooves because, well, Holcombe is mostly singing the blues. Furthermore, Holcombe's voice is permanently portraying a man of constant sorrow, seemingly in constant pain. "The Eyes O'Josephine," with its Irish folk song arrangement, is a welcome break from this otherwise mostly bleak Southern trudge. It sounds somewhat like what an Irish-inspired song from Steve Earle might sound like these days with his time-ravaged voice.
Between lines during "Bury, England," the listener can hear Holcombe breathing heavily as he sings at one point about a detestable smoking habit. Let's hope he's not speaking/singing biographically. Perhaps this is simply his chosen vocal style.
The music filling out "Pretty Little Troubles" concerns few topics either 'pretty' or 'little.' It is, though, as real and tangible as the rocky ground.