Malcolm Holcombe: Gamblin’ House

[5 March 2008]

By Steve Horowitz

As Easy as 1-2-3

The first thing one notices when listening to North Carolina native Malcolm Holcombe is his voice. To call it gruff is like calling the Empire State Building tall, or the Grand Canyon wide. The self-professed smoker sounds like he swallows unfiltered Camels whole and washes them down with cheap moonshine from a brown bottle. Holcombe may sonically appear to be as old as the hills, but generally has the concerns of a younger man. And the thing is, the Tar Heel singer’s coarse country vocals have a populist appeal. He sounds like the kind of guy one might swap stories with at a bar or barbershop, and smile a lot at the easy flow of conversation. 

The next thing one realizes is that Holcombe’s colorful language doesn’t always mean anything in particular. He writes catchy non sequiturs and tales that seem to take off into nonsense. “The closet’s full of thirsty liars / The sweatshop, pet shop across the street / Lovely, lovely pitiful Pete / Antique babies and goodtime gin,” Holcombe croaks on one song. It’s not clear what he’s talking about in “Goodtimes”, but it’s understood he’s having fun. “Living in the waters of a gamblin’ house,” he snorts on the title tune, yet it’s never clear how literally or metaphorically he means this.

That’s not to say Holcombe always rambles. His love for his wife “Cynthia Margaret” comes across loud and clear even if the lyrics don’t always make sense. “Blown by the breeze of G-d’s only eye,” he cryptically sings about her. And there’s a powerful song protesting the current state of America, “I’d Rather Have a Home”, where he lambastes both President Bush (“Your silly smile on TV stinks a country mile”) and a nation where the poor have to fight our wars (“They pick and choose the needy to be brave”). When the seriousness of the topic merits, Holcombe makes sure he’s comprehensible.

The third thing one discerns about the North Carolinian’s disc is just how appealing his melodies are. They’re either toe-tappers, or the kind of instrumentation that makes the listener hold one’s breath in wonder of what will happen next. The combination of Holcombe’s distinctive vocals, lively lyrics, and seductive tunes make this a formidable record, but … there is also something affected about this disc. We live in an age where regional differences have been smoothed out in our national culture; where breakfast, lunch and supper taste identical at the same chain restaurants across the nation; where country singers come from the city and urban rappers come from rural zip codes. Television, the Internet, and a million other diverse influences have made growing up anywhere in the United States the same basic experience.

Holcombe makes a point of being different, of being authentic, and by all accounts he is the character he sings as. But we all are part of the mix. Holcombe proclaiming his rural roots isn’t much different, than to use a counter example, than President Bush calling himself a Texan. That doesn’t mean this isn’t an excellent record—it is—but don’t confuse this with reality. Holcombe is as much a construct as the next musician. His artifice is part of his art.

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