So straight and slow

This album was destined for the cutout bins.

It’s too weird for country, but too country for avant-garde. It’s difficult, cryptic. It’s nearly hookless, and the singer? At the time the album was released in 1990, writers described her voice as “an acquired taste”.

Robin Holcomb’s self-titled debut album was not designed to be a star-making vehicle. There’s little evidence it was designed to be an indie statement.

It is, in the end, a purely personal album. It’s also one of my favorites.

Nonesuch Records must have spent a pretty penny on advertising through Tower Records to drum up back-channel enthusiasm for Holcomb’s music. For a month after its release, Tower labeled it a “No-Risk Disc”. Didn’t like it? Take it back for a refund.

So I took the risk. And I never went for the refund.

Holcomb is the wife of Wayne Horvitz, keyboardist for John Zorn’s Naked City and the leader of his own myriad of ensembles. Both were active in the downtown New York improvisation scene of the 1980s.

An accomplished improviser and keyboardist herself, Holcomb recorded an album of jazz instrumentals before making the leap as a singer-songwriter. Or, for anyone who buys into the distinction between high and low arts, a singer-composer.

Compared to her work with the New York Composers Orchestra — and later, a solo piano album of classical pieces — Holcomb’s debut was, well, conventional. The songs were songs — verses, choruses, solos.

But even within the limited confines of the pop song, Holcomb still managed to stretch the structure’s abilities.

“American Rhine” employs a minimal amount of lyrical, melodic, even harmonic material, but a dissonant clarinet melody provides a stark contrast.

The uneasy chorus of “Hand Me Down All Stories” makes the verses all the more solid. Booming percussion makes the already surreal piano backdrop of “So Straight and Slow” even moreso.

Even when Holcomb flaunts the influences on her music — the south on “Troy”, a Thelonius Monk quote on “this poem is in memory of!” — it’s never quite a straight reading.

“Nine Lives” is as close to a single as Robin Holcomb, the album, gets, and even that song is hard to sing along to.

Holcomb’s voice is indeed an acquired taste — a nasal, trembly instrument that muddies her own melodies as much as deliver them.

And yet, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else handling her music.

The album also features Horvitz and guitarist Bill Frisell — two members of Naked City on a set songs the polar opposite of John Zorn’s frenetic ensemble. It’s nice to pair the two self-titled albums together and realize they emerged from the same time period.

Robin Holcomb introduced me to the music of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and for the six years following, it would be a fruitful exploration.

This album may be found in the cutout bins, but its effect on me was far more profound.