It’s been 10 years since Robin Holcomb released a vocal album, and any starving fans expecting the Seattle-based improviser to be stuck in a time warp might be sorely disappointed.
Holcomb released two albums at the start of the 1990s sporting music that was Americana in foundation but avant-garde in attitude. A veteran of the downtown New York improvisation scene with her husband Wayne Horvitz, Holcomb’s rural music never lost it’s urban edge.
But for all the dissonant embellishments on those early 90s albums, Holcomb still managed to write hooks. “Help a Man” from Rockabye and “Nine Lives” from her self-titled debut were practically singles.
There are no singles on The Big Time. There aren’t many hooks either. At the same time, the album is more beautiful than her previous works.
On first listen, it’s difficult to figure out what’s going on. Holcomb’s melodies are never direct, her phrasing off-kilter, the contours barely conforming to a discernable pattern.
Her backing band — consisting of Horvitz’s bandmates in Zony Mash, plus guitarist Bill Frisell — comes across as no less cryptic. When they’re not embellishing an eerie drone with dissonant improvisation, they’re grounding Holcomb’s rhythmic liberties with odd harmonies.
“If You Can’t Make the Curve” epitomizes this skewered aesthetic. The song opens with an angular introduction, which gives way to a steady beat and Holcomb’s warbly singing. When the chorus appears, the rhythm section disappears, and the angular introduction returns as accompaniment.
Even a robust interpretation of a traditional tune, “A Lazy Farm Boy”, feels more like Charles Mingus than Nanci Griffith.
After adjusting to the album’s uncomfortable atmosphere, The Big Time comes across as every bit as haunting as Holcomb’s other vocal albums, only far more disquieting.
“Pretend” never feels like it has a solid rhythmic anchor. Holcomb crams wordy verses into “Like I Care”, while her bandmates provide a spare backdrop.
Horvitz and Frisell have rather large presences on The Big Time. At times, the album sounds like a cut from one of their recent works instead of a Robin Holcomb album.
“I Want to Tell You I Love You” could have come off of one of Horvitz’s 4+1 Ensemble discs. Frisell’s recognizable reverb-drenched guitar picking propells “Engine 143”.
In the end, The Big Time offers a lot of subtle complexity to keep attentive listeners rapt listen after listen. Holcomb’s unconventional songs have been given very detailed readings by Horvitz and his crew, and the results sound like country, feel like jazz, and endure like classical music.