Another Black Hole scrollerIt’s just over six months since Malcolm Holcombe’s last album “The RCA Sessions” was released, so he’s obviously not spinning his wheels at the moment. “The RCA Sessions” was a retrospective with a twist, while “Another Black Hole” is ten new songs in the inimitable Malcolm Holcombe style. If your idea of a great voice is the kind of sanitised autotuned pap that you hear all over the radio, then we’d better say goodbye right here. Malcolm Holcombe has a voice that’s full of rugged character, matching the themes of his songs to perfection. As he sings in the title song, ‘The radio plays for the happy go lucky, that ain’t my set o’ wheels’.

Throughout “Another Black Hole”, most of the usual collaborators are present, including Jared Tyler, David Roe and Ken Coomer and there are a couple of guest appearances from the legendary Tony Joe White, notably on the album’s rockiest song “Papermill Man”, which combines the themes of nostalgia and life at the bottom of the ladder that run through the album with a raucous, rambunctious musical romp.

The language and imagery are more measured, but this album reminds me of Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball”, contrasting the Carveresque characters of the songs with the ‘suits and ties in the cubicles’ (“To Get By”) and the Vanderbilts who ‘hold the keys to the city’ (“Papermill Man”). If there was any doubt about where Malcolm Holcombe’s sympathies lie, “Don’t Play Around” nails it with the line ‘fuckin’ damn frackin’ and backroom stabbin’ knocks me down on my knees’. This is the ordinary, everyday Joe sitting in a bar and venting his anger over a beer before going outside to smoke a cigarette (and he makes it clear where that highway’s always going to end).

Malcolm’s voice may be a taste that you need to acquire, but the songs on “Another Black Hole” are beautifully-crafted vignettes of American life on the other side of the tracks, just out east of Eden. The playing’s perfect throughout, matching the music to the lyrical themes, without ever becoming overcooked. What more do you need?

Out now on Gypsy Eyes Music.

 

Vanessa Peters - 'With The Sentimentals' - TitleVanessa Peters released an album in 2006 with her band Ice Cream on Mondays titled “Little Films” and if you wanted a pithy little phrase to describe her songs, that wouldn’t be too far wide of the mark but it’s not quite that simple. Vanessa’s songs describe a world that’s somewhere between Raymond Carver and David Lynch; the songs are vignettes of American life packed with highly visual images and a hint of darkness at the centre. Of the ten songs on the album, six are originals, one is a cover and three are reworkings of earlier album or EP tracks. Three reworkings may seem a bit excessive, but working with The Sentimentals (her European touring band) has created a different perspective on the songs which more than justifies their inclusion on the album.

The Sentimentals are based in Copenhagen and they are M.C. Hansen (guitars), Nikolaj Wolf (upright bass) and Jacob Chano (drums and percussion). They’ve worked with Vanessa on tour in Europe and the States and last year everyone decided that it was time to immortalise the magic, recording the album live in a couple of Danish studios without any overdubs. The band creates a mellow backdrop throughout the album which allows Vanessa to be close-miked, creating a very intimate setting for a voice which is part early Joni Mitchell, part Suzanne Vega and part Lana del Rey.

The opening song, “Pacific Street” is a cover of a Hem song which the band speeds up and builds around a laser-clean guitar figure. It might not sock you on the jaw, but it leads you gently into the album, hinting at the little treasures within. Of the reworkings, two (“Big Time Underground” and “Fireworks” are from “Little Films”) and tell the stories of variously dysfunctional individuals in relationships; the arrangements have more space and feel more intimate than the originals, allowing the narrative to shine through. “Afford to Pretend” (originally from the “Blackout” EP) goes in the opposite direction, replacing a solo acoustic guitar backing with the full band and a military drumbeat.

Fickle Friends” and “Light” are both moody pieces, the former having an almost trip-hop feel, while the latter is heavy on reverb and the visual imagery which runs through the album. It’s fair to say that either song would fit perfectly on “Born to Die”. The remaining four songs are classic Vanessa Peters short stories, telling tales of doomed relationships (“Mostly Fictions”), the partner who’s impossible to get close to (the country-tinged “Call You All the Time”), the impossibility of completely closing the door on a chapter of your life (“The Choice”) and the album’s closing track, “Getting By” which is about – well, I think you can work that one out.

The playing on the album is tasteful without ever breaking into showy territory, apart from the lovely guitar solo at the close of “Mostly Fictions” but the songs don’t really need too much embellishment, just a framework to hang them on. If you like your songs, to use a phrase I nicked from the great Scottish singer-songwriter Dean Owens, “somewhere between melancholy and miserable”, then you’re in the right place.

Vanessa Peters with The Sentimentals” is released on Monday May 11th.