“Tricks of the Trade” – Malcolm Holcombe

4 stars (out of 5)

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Malcolm Holcombe is one of those songwriters who is quiet rightly revered by music fans and fellow-songwriters alike. He’s been releasing solo material for twenty-seven years now, and the quality of his work never dips; he just goes on writing, playing, beautifully crafted songs in his own country/blues/rock style, singing them in his own distinctive cracked drawl. It’s powerful stuff, even before you get to the lyrical themes of the of the twelve songs on this album (with a bonus thirteenth on the CD version).

Malcolm has been prolific recently with six albums in the last six years despite serious health problems and that small matter of a pandemic. “Tricks of the Trade” marks a progression from his recent work. The addition of electric guitar to Jared Tyler’s string armoury adds a harder cutting edge to the arrangements while Malcolm’s lyric have more of a political edge this time around, which shouldn’t surprise anyone after the events of the last eighteen months.

Musically the stylings move across the roots spectrum from the lap steel-led old country of “Misery Loves Company” through the uptempo acoustic “Crazy Man Blues” to the country rock of “Damn Rainy Day” (with a similar theme to Paolo Nutini’s “Pencil Full of Lead”). Jared Tyler’s electric adds some punch to the album’s closer “Shaky Ground”, while a cello line adds pathos to the love ballad “Lenora Cynthia” and “Higher Ground” has a pumping bassline that evokes the Talking Heads classic, “Psycho Killer”. It’s a strikingly broad musical palette.

The lyrical edge of the album comes, typically for Malcolm Holcombe, with the allusive and indirect political references, leaving the listener to wonder what they actually heard. Just two words in “Higher Ground”, ‘slumlord whitehouse’ convey the Trump genealogy. Donald Trump’s father Fred Trump built up the property empire that the former President inherited and was attacked in song by Woody Guthrie over racial discrimination. That’s a lot of meaning packed in to two words. And while we’re talking about presidents, “On Tennessee Land” highlights the short-sightedness of voters in the Southern states, recalling Lyndon B Johnson’s comment: ‘If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket.’ The title song can be interpreted as a commentary on political trickery or, like the opener “Money Train”, the machinations of the music business; there are always layers within layers in Malcolm Holcombe’s songs.

“Tricks of the Trade” is the real thing. Malcolm Holcombe has taken his very personal songwriting style in a more political direction while still retaining the subtlety of lyrical expression that typifies his work. Take the time to peel way the layers and you’ll find a very satisfying album that will stay with you.

“Tricks of the Trade” is released in the UK on Friday August 20th.

Here’s the video for the opening song “The Money Train”:

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