Robin Holcomb plays piano and sings in a style that evokes what the poets call “the lost America of love”. There is something nostalgic about the music, even as it sounds distinctly new. On her latest album, One Way or Another, Vol. 1, she follows in the American modernist classical keyboard tradition (think Aaron Copeland and Charles Ives) mixed with a warbling alto voice that uses folk and jazz intonations to add an emotionalism to the dry audio structures. Holcomb alternates playing frills and lingering notes on the piano as a way to generate tension while using the sound of her voice to create intimacy between her and the listener. She offers an empathetic emotionalism by keeping things simple.
There’s a dreamlike wistfulness in the spaces between the notes suggesting reflection. The silences on this record are purposeful and intentional. Holcomb recorded the music during a four-day stint at the rural ShowGhost studio in Whitefish, Montana, with only her voice, a Steinway grand piano, recording equipment, and her husband (composer and producer Wayne Horvitz). This sparseness adds a genteel decorum to the album and provides a halcyon elegance to the unassuming compositions.
Holcomb recreated tracks on this retrospective from her previous four Nonesuch titles compositions, added some songs from her and Horvitz’s two jointly penned theater projects, and included an assortment of covers. The original material allows Holcomb to sing confidently, especially when the song’s narrator sings about being self-assured as on “Copper Bottom”. She exudes authority even when taking long pauses or rushing the lyrics.
Holcomb’s self-penned songs, such as “Electrical Storm” from her eponymous first album that was released more than 30 years ago, sound more timeless today than they did back then. As her new recordings of past songs feature her as a solo act compared to ones that used accompanying instrumentalists, the music comes off as ageless and enduring. The lyrics themselves have not dated and seem eternal with lines such as, “O, hush little baby, you’re crying / And your tears taste like the rain.” The bonds that tie us together seem to be a central theme of many of the songs. We can sit in the dark, but at least we are not alone in our loneliness.
The cover tunes on One Way or Another are its most revelatory tracks. For example, Holcomb’s versions of Stephen Foster’s mournful tribute to his “Old Dog Tray” and his plea for charity, “Hard Times Come Again No More”, show how far Holcomb can stray from the original yet still maintain the essential core of the material and make it contemporary. The songs are still recognizable in subtle ways. In terms of content, the links between people and animals, the need to have compassion for the less fortunate, and the strange universal connections between all living things will always be a mystery and a mission.
Yet some things never change, even as everything changes. Holcomb displays this musically in simple terms that magically reveal the magic of it all. The past may be a prologue to the present, but the future also shows one how to understand what has passed. Holcomb looks backward and shows us what may come.