Few songwriters have the ability to crystallize a troubling image and build a tableau around it as memorably or tersely as pianist Robin Holcomb. She’s enjoyed a cult following since the 90s; she has an environmentalist streak and prefers shadowy melodies that draw as deeply on 19th century American front-porch folk and balladry as Charles Ives.
She had to go to the free state of Montana to find a studio to record her new solo album One Way or Another, streaming at Bandcamp. She’s playing the album release show on Nov 10 at around 9 at Roulette. Her husband, keyboardist Wayne Horvitz (of Presidents of the United States of America fame) opens the night at 8 in a duo performance with the brilliantly thoughtful bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck. You can get in for $25 in advance.
Holcomb’s new record is a mix of intimate versions of older songs, material from a couple of theatrical projects and a couple of covers. If anything, the songs are crystallized to a finer diamond finish than before: most of them clock in at under three minutes, some considerably less.
She opens with the title track (an original, not the Blondie hit), a spare spacious, gospel-tinged reflection. “Remember learning to crawl as you stagger out under the weight of the world, one foot it starts to fall,” Holcomb intones with her usual graceful understatement.
Track two is simply titled Waltz, Holcomb building a a distant sense of foreboding with her sparse, modal melody and imagery to match, a big-sky tableau with “nary a place to bury the bones.” Holcomb reinvents Stephen Foster’s Hard Times Come Again No More with tightly clustering phrases that bring to mind Dawn Oberg.
Doc Pomus’ I’ve Got That Feeling comes across as minimalist Carole King, at least until Holcomb really pounces on it after the second chorus. She shifts between gospel resonance and Carol Lipnik phantasmagoria in Once: the Steely Dan references and the trick ending are spot-on.
Likewise, Holcomb works uneasy Carla Bley harmonies over a jaunty Appalachian dance beat in A Lazy Farmer Boy, playing up the underlying grimness in the rustic tale. She builds the album’s most hauntingly allusive narrative in I’m Gonna Lose Again: the way she brings the story full circle will give you chills. It’s one of the best songs of the year.
“Don’t confuse me with my laughter, I won’t return the morning after,” Holcomb reminds in Copper Bottom, a key track from her Utopia Project about early 20th century cults.
“The mirror allows what the darkness divides,” she reveals in Rockabye, a subtly venomous, Tom Waits-ish lullaby for a drunken abuser. The darkness and regret is buried much deeper in the hypnotic circles of Shining.
Holcomb goes back to waltz time for Electrical Storm: the devil’s also in the details for that one. She mutes the absence and sense of sheer abandonment in the light-fingered Britfolk cadences of another Foster song, Old Dog Tray. The final cut, The Point of it All provides a wary, broodingly detailed coda for this inviting and often haunting record.