Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Robin Holcomb

Robin Holcomb: Robin Holcomb. Posted by Hello

It's Women's History Month at HurdAudio and tonight I focus on a collection of songs by Robin Holcomb from 1990. I've avoided songs and songwriters this month in favor of "text music" as songs are a completely different animal and generally difficult to talk about. However, I find Holcomb has a composer's sensibility that makes for some compelling songs. And as a listening experience Robin Holcomb opens my ears to the potential of balancing words and music in a way that brings out the best of both.

Opening with "Nine Lives" a soft synth patch sets up a spare harmony for Holcomb's voice. Then Bill Frisell comes in on guitar with some soft drumming by Danny Rankel. The piano part then keeps a steady pulse as it projects the overall harmonic structure. This is a great backdrop for Holcomb's voice as these words and this soft, inflected style would wither under a heavy arrangement or mindless kick/snare approach to time keeping.

"The American Rhine" follows as the strongest track, and strongest piece of songwriting I've heard from Holcomb. Again, the creative arrangement behind this poetry is what keeps me intrigued. The percussion is light and the piano parts and the clarinet lines played by Doug Wieselman are balanced and welcome ingredients. The pulse is steady, present and outlined with a light touch.

"Troy" paints a compelling, down-home picture with the deft fiddle playing of John Caulfield and a smoking band backing things up (not to mention the always welcome sound of Wayne Horvitz on the Hammond B3 organ). Holcomb's voice dips toward earthier tones for this track as the arrangement periodically strips away to expose her voice. By the end the band takes over and jams into a satisfying coda.

"this poem is in memory of!" is a great, creative portrait that loops a piano figure before quoting "Blue Monk" by Thelonious Monk as the words make explicit reference to it as a detail in the word painting. This track breaks out of the song form and breathes. I'd love a whole disc of these short "still-life" composition/songs.

"Yr Mother Called Them Farmhouses" is a particularly intense piece of song writing. The words tell a story of a victim recounting a violent episode that borders on being too unbearable to contemplate. The arrangement is focused and allows the words to carry all the intensity and allow the dignity of the narrator's voice to come through.

Robin Holcomb delivers on several fronts. The poetry is well thought out and comes across as honest. The arrangements are imaginative and play toward the strengths and character of Holcomb's singing voice. The band is phenomenal both in a supporting and focal role (and the blend between the two is well executed).

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