Perfect Sound Forever

Robin Holcomb: On the American Rhine

photo: Michael Wilson

By Kurt Wildermuth
(November 2002)

American composer, pianist, singer/songwriter, musical and cultural iconoclast Robin Holcomb, originally from Georgia but long associated with both coasts, has finally released a new CD. Called, ironically, The Big Time (Nonesuch), it's her first release in six years, and it might be her best work yet. But each of her previous recordings sounds like it's her best work. If you don't believe me, if you think that's hyperbole, please buy them all and judge for yourself. If you know people who might be interested in nominally folk-pop-rockish but basically uncategorizable music that brings to mind, say, a collaboration between Joni Mitchell and Charles Ives, with some country and a bit o' sixties soul in the mix, throw a listening party. It'll be an extremely sedate affair, but it'll help spread the word.

In addition to tracks on compilations, there are six recordings to collect, if you're feeling inspired and willing to hunt. In the late 1980s and early '90s, Holcomb and her husband, keyboardist Wayne Horvitz (who's played on and produced most of her music), lived in New York City and worked with The New York Composers Orchestra, Downtown Manhattan musicians loosely affiliated with the Knitting Factory scene. In 1988-89, Holcomb released two collections on Sound Aspects Records, both of which are out of print. The almost fully instrumental Larks, They Crazy includes interesting versions of two pieces that would appear, one with lyrics, on her later CDs; and it simultaneously explores sounds she'd later de-emphasize (such as avant-garde jazz), prefigures sounds she'd later explore more fully (such as atmospheric pop), and doesn't even suggest her later work as singer/songwriter. On the fully instrumental Todos Santos, Holcomb neither plays nor sings, but puts her ambient, jazzy compositions in the fine hands of Horvitz, Butch Morris (cornet), Robert Previte (drums), Doug Wieselman (tenor, clarinet), and Bill Frisell (guitar).

Robin Holcomb (Elektra), released in 1990, after Holcomb and Horvitz had moved to Seattle, was her major-label debut. Its tightly reined eclecticism announced Holcomb's sensibility, bringing American sources together in European-style art songs with unapologetic hooks. That playful but grounded, historically rooted but not academic, ultimately no-nonsense approach has flowed through her subsequent CDs like a river of crystal-clear water, sometimes rushing, sometimes slowing to a trickle, pure but bearing with it pieces of the landscape: "Further on down the American Rhine," she sings on one particularly haunting, cryptic track on that self-titled CD. "Needle full of miracles."

More abstract expressionistic than confessional, Holcomb's music seems to come straight out of a deep well located precisely between her heart and her head, without being filtered through any commercial considerations. It can be dissonant or perfectly, pleasurably melodic, but no amount of tweaking or pumping up or promoting could make it fit within the mass-entertainment machine. Consider "Hand Me Down All Stories," a representative but fairly random example:

Weave stories from the headlines
Into your lullabies tonight
Storm of ages, heads hung low
Chariots are running on the rocky road
It takes a fool to foul the weather wheel
And another fool to bring him down
There'll be dancing, dancing in the streets
If memory ever finds this town

O, hand me down all stories
Sweet, bitter truths to live by
May their pleasures be repeated
Throughout our little lives

Most listeners just aren't prepared to unravel the subtle, gentle interweaving of poetry, mythology, wisdom, observation, and good advice in those lines. Even at their simplest, as in the chorus of "Deliver Me" ("Deliver me / Deliver me / The light is only perfect for a very short time"), Holcomb's lyrics display the minimalist impulse to suggest worlds through gestures and especially through surprising juxtapositions.

On 1992's Rockabye (Elektra), as on Robin Holcomb, the combinations of sounds, of Holcomb's sweet, quavering voice and her finely wrought but often elusive lyrics, of ringing instruments in angular arrangements (here with more explicit genre references), make for concentrated, participatory listening. When she sings "Liquor on the breath / of a wind / bearing rain," on "Primavera," I always hear "liquor" as "flicker," and that mishearing always draws me in and makes me think about what I'm listening to. It's not that each of us constructs our own Robin Holcomb songs; she has crafted them too carefully for that. No, but because of their complexity--and even the simplest-seeming ones have several aspects--each of us will approach, hear, and construe them differently. Each of us will, for example, make something unique out of the opening question in Rockabye's opening song, "Widowmaker": "How to safely / cut a life / in two?" How, indeed.

In a sense, Holcomb let that question linger for four years, until on 1996's Little Three (Elektra/Asylum) she provided a kind of answer in "The Graveyard Song": "Sum your life and brand the stone / The chisel won't help you any." (So much for safety. Death is omnipresent.) "We know he died because he loved / And his death is our dying." Displaying the non-dogmatic religious sensibility that surfaces here and there in her work, this is one of two songs on a CD that otherwise consists of piano compositions, the two longest of which were written for solo accordionist Guy Klucevskek (who'd appeared on Rockabye) and as part of a collaboration with the Bebe Miller dance company. Remarkably, given the distinctiveness of Holcomb's voice and the high quality of her lyrics, these instrumentals feel similar to her songs, just as this CD, musically (and culturally?) stripped to the bone, sits comfortably next to Holcomb's more "accessible" previous two. Her vision unifies all these styles. Holcomb's uneasy pieces each travel to a variety of places, old European and American locations but also modern and even postmodern ones. Just as you think you've pinned down her melodic quotations, she twists them, a technique she made explicit on Rockabye's instrumental, "Dixie," which plays strange, off-kilter, sometimes noisy variations on the old southern tune of the same title. Here, bits of familiar tunes--"Yankee Doodle Dandy," "Over the Rainbow"--seem to emerge from the flow, only to mutate, in the same way that Holcomb's verbal allusions on other albums come and go before you know what you've heard ("All the storms are on the ocean" is almost a Carter Family line, while "O can you see / The dawn so blue" is almost the opening of the National Anthem, and so on). I don't want to overstate the case, because it's not as though she sacrifices clarity for flow or the CDs need footnotes, but such play, between what any one person perceives and what's really there, seems built into Holcomb's aesthetic as solidly as photos of nature and commonplace objects and her looking away from the camera--looking much more preoccupied, even troubled, than she does in person--are built into that aesthetic's visual representation.

"Wrap yourself in castoff phrases blown about by the longwinded," Holcomb sings on The Big Time, "Like I care, like I do"--at once sarcastically dipping into the vernacular and commenting on her method. Her lyrics have a new directness here: "I want to tell you that I love you," "I tried to believe what you told me." Often, they talk about telling stories rather than telling them, as though the storyteller wants to cut through accumulated layers of indirection, to strip away those illusions. But the music snakes more than ever.

"Pretend" and "If You Can't Make the Curve" veer into spare, even scary psychedelia. The traditional "A Lazy Farmer Boy" is treated as Eno-esque art rock, sound layered on sound, while A. P. Carter's "Engine 143" becomes a slightly, whitely funky shuffle, like a slow train coming, passing by, continuing on. The title track is ringing-guitar rock, as physical as it is cerebral, while "I Want to Tell the Story" is ambient. "I Tried to Believe" is woozy circus music, while the piano-and-vocal "Sit Right Down" and a cappella "Lullaby" could have fit on Little Three, although the latter song becomes a softer, less solitary experience thanks to harmonies from the great Canadian singer/songwriters Kate and Anna McGarrigle.

The McGarrigles are living legends, pioneers of the kinds of musical hybrids Holcomb calls home. Their appearances on three songs here mean that different strands of what we might call contemporary Americana are coming together, just as they did when Robin Holcomb made special guest appearances on the Walkabouts' European-covers collection, Train Leaves at Eight, and on the Mickey Newbury tribute album, Frisco Mabel Joy Revisited, coproduced by the Walkabouts' Chris Eckman and No Depression music magazine coeditor Peter Blackstock. All these people share a love for this country's, this continent's, indigenous musical and cultural forms, broadened by a full awareness of the world beyond its shores, and tempered, implicitly, by distaste for all that's wrong here and disgust for all the wrongs it's built on. Joining forces, they are like lights in the darkness meeting one another, illuminating small pockets of a nowhere that everybody knows is somewhere out there.

I've seen Robin Holcomb perform twice, both times in New York. The first time, maybe three or four years ago, was just piano and voice, at Roulette, a tiny, unadorned TriBeCa performance space. If Holcomb heard, as the audience did, the downstairs neighbor's stereo blasting dance music as she played, she didn't let on. Perfectly focused, intense but warm, she played songs and instrumentals from Little Three and a few older songs. More a confirmation than a revelation, the performance let us see the composer inhabit her pieces.

 This past July, at Joe's Pub, a much larger and swankier club in the East Village, a different kind of city noise intruded. This time promoting The Big Time, Holcomb supplemented her piano and voice with a full band: acoustic and electric guitars, bass, drums, clarinet, saxophone. As subways rumbled below us, Holcomb joked about how they made the stage vibrate. You'd think that a rock band, and this band rocked surprisingly hard at times, could compete with intermittent train traffic, but this band was different. Some musicians lock together to form a solid mass of sound, so seamless it doesn't seem as though it could have come from instruments and hands, but these guys didn't do that. Instead, they aimed to let the seams show, to create an aural transparency, to emphasize the handmade nature of Holcomb's music.

 As a solo performer, a bandleader, or both, she can go anywhere now--maybe follow her muse into some brand-new style of, say, full-blown orchestral or jazz-ensemble composition. No doubt whatever music she makes will bear traces of where she's been all this time, and I don't mean just the past six years, and I don't mean just where she's lived.

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