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Robin Holcomb


Country of origin:

U.S.

Type of music generally:

Evocative/eclectic folk/rock/alternative pop, with some jazz and experimental and sometimes country flavouring

Status:

Most recent release, John Brown's Body (2006)

See also:

Robin Holcomb's site

Nonesuch Records's Robin Holcomb site

The Ectoguide pages for her solo work with Wayne Horvitz and her collaboration with Talking Pictures and Wayne Horvitz

Comparisons:

This is a hard one. A piano-based Kristin Hersh? The piano pieces aren't unlike Tori Amos' instrumental work. Melodically experimental in the way Veda Hille is. (Neile)

Cowboy Junkies. (dmw@mwmw.com)

Covers/own material:

Own

General comments:

Robin Holcomb has a quirky voice and quirky lyrics. She used to write poetry and her lyrics are more evocative and haunting than didactic—they're spare and their exact meaning is hard to pin down but they're allusive and emotional and evocative enough to set you thinking. Hard to describe. The songs are catchy without ever being mainstream. Her sound and music are individual, spare but beautiful, and piano-based. It can be a touch folksie but classical & jazz piano-based. I highly recommend her first and fourth albums, especially, and her second, as the third is mostly contemporary piano compositions with only two songs with vocals—while I like her piano work, it's her voice and lyrics that really capture me. (Neile)

On a radio interview I heard her comment that her voice isn't particularly notable. Which is true enough, though it works quite well for the songs she has written. (neal)

Comments about live performance:

Robin is truly brilliant. She is indeed extraordinarily somber, in live performance—someone pointed out that she gives new meaning to the term "anti-banter". It was an unbelievable show, though. (slambert@interport.net)

It wasn't as remarkable as I had hoped it would be, but it was a pleasure to see anyway. I kind of hate to review a performer's manner, since that should be secondary to a performance, but sometimes you just can't help it. Robin looked very stern, with her hair pulled tightly back in a bun. She looked the part of a strict librarian , or the teacher in a one room schoolhouse out on the prairie. When she played, she often looked quite unhappy. The expression on her face alternated between distaste, distress and almost physical illness. She didn't appear to be having much of a good time at all. Between song banter was kept to a bare minimum, typically just the title of the song (if that).
     However, it's the music that's important, and when I wasn't distracted by watching her perform, I thought the music was anywhere from lulling to moving. She played a ton of songs from the first album, a smattering from Little Three, and I imagine a few from Rockabye, which I don't have. It was very interesting to hear the songs I was familiar with done with just piano accompaniment, rather than the atmospheric production of the album. Her music seems more like living room music than concert music. The mournful tales of struggle and harsh, poetic landscapes were subtle, but somewhat samey. The only really dramatic musical moment was her almost unrecognizable version of "Dixie" (from Rockabye). She really went wild at the piano. Songs like "The Graveyard Song", and the show closing "Deliver Me", stood out from the rest of the set. (6/99, neal)

I've seen her live, too, and noticed how distant she feels—it probably is more due to her performance experience as part of contemporary jazz groups, where interaction with the audience isn't part of the show as it is with pop music. Each time I've seen her, though, she has impressed me with the intensity of her performance, and of course her wonderful songs. So go see her; just don't expect her to be chatty! (c. 1994)
     We saw her again about a year ago solo (opening for Veda Hille) and it was a good match as far as the music goes. Again, though, Robin was quite withdrawn and didn't interact with the audience at all. The music was transporting, though! She has a bunch of wonderful new songs, and it was great to hear them. I love how jazz has influenced her sound and poetry has influenced her lyrics. Hearing her, then Veda also showed the connections between the work Veda is doing now and Robin's work. (12/00)
     But when we saw her this week with her band at the launch for The Big Time, she was much more relaxed and seemed more personable—I think she prefers playing with the band beside her. She seemed lively and involved, and even sang two songs away from the piano, facing the audience. A night of incredible music, and I was thrilled to see her looking more relaxed and happy onstage. (08/02, Neile)

Most every time I've seen Robin perform, Neal's description would apply perfectly. Could it be any other way? When on a rare occasion she'd manage a smile it appeared pained at best. With her material being mostly somber dirges a cheery mien would seem totally out of place. I guess her music is her outlet to expel the bile from her system. I can only enjoy Robin's work when in a particular mood. If you ever have an opportunity to see Robin perform as a component of a larger group, as she has in the past on occasion, do so. When she performs the works of others the sunshine gets through. The girl needs to cheer up! (jjh969@juno.com)

Recommended first album:

The Big Time

Recordings:


Robin Holcomb

Release info:

1990—Elektra/Warner, U.S.—9 60983-2

Availability:

Wide in U.S.

Ecto priority:

Must have if the description interests you

Group members:

Robin Holcomb—piano, vocals
Doug Wieselman—clarinet, tenor sax, electric & acoustic guitars
Dave Hofstra—electric & acoustic bass, tuba
Danny Rankel—drums, percussion
Wayne Horvitz—organ, synthesizer, piano, harmonica
Bill Frisell—electric & acoustic guitars

Guest artists:

John Caulfied—violin & mandolin
Nica—sings and tells stories

Produced by:

Wayne Horvitz

Comments:

This whole collection is consistently interesting. Listening to it is an active experience because of the images her music and lyrics evoke. Several of these songs have been obsessions for me for a long time, especially "Yr Mother Called Them Farmhouses". A stunningly haunting collection. (Neile)

Rockabye

Release info:

1992—Elektra/Warner U.S.—9 61289-2

Availability:

Wide in U.S.

Ecto priority:

Must have if the description interests you.

Group members:

Robin Holcomb—piano, vocals, Hammond organ, keyboards

Guest artists:

Stew Cutler—guitars
Peter Holsapple—guitars
Wayne Horvitz—Hammond organ, keyboards
Dave Hofstra—bass, tuba
Alan Bezozi—drums, tambourine, percussion
Jearlyn Steele Battle—background vocals
Jevetta Steele—background vocals
J.D. Steele—background vocals
Fred Steele—background vocals
Doug Wieselman—tenor saxophone, guitar, clarinet
Danny Frankel—drums, tambourine
Mino Cinelu—percussion
Peter Ostroushko—mandolin, violin
Guy Klucevek—accordion
Bill Frisell—guitar
Marty Erlich—tenor saxophone
Art Baron—trombone
Bruce "Creeper" Kurnow—harmonica

Produced by:

Wayne Horvitz

Comments:

Rockabye takes Robin Holcomb a little farther into the territory she opened with her first collection. Here the songs seem a little more country-oriented, but you could never call her a country singer. There's something really folky about her music, and yet it's complicated and evocative in the way that straightforward country and folk aren't, I think due to her interests in poetry, jazz, and contemporary musical composition. (Neile)

excellent songs, solid vocals, an interesting, unique album. (mundopax@ingress.com)


Little Three

Release info:

1996—Nonesuch (Warner), U.S.—79366-2

Availability:

Wide in U.S.

Ecto priority:

Recommended if you like piano music. (Neile)

Group members:

Robin Holcomb—piano, vocals

Produced by:

Judith Sherman

Comments:

do check out Little Three—it's 5 solo piano pieces, and 2 songs with vocals. worth buying just for the beauty of "The Graveyard Song". (slambert@interport.net)

The two songs are wonderful and the piano music is lovely. I'm not enough of a fan of contemporary instrumental composition to pay full price for this, but I was happy to find it used. "The Graveyard Song" is indeed lovely. (Neile)

I just love it. There are only two songs with vocals—"The Graveyard Song" is cool and spooky. The Cowboy Junkies comparison was quite apt. The rest of the disc is solo piano, and it is really beautiful. Highly recommended. (neal)


The Big Time

Release info:

2002—Nonesuch (Warner), U.S.—79653-2

Availability:

Wide in U.S.

Ecto priority:

Highly recommended

Group members:

Robin Holcomb—voice, piano

Guest artists:

Tim Young—acoustic and electric guitars
Bill Frisell—acoustic and electric guitars
Wayne Horvitz—Hammond B-3
Keith Lowe—acoustic and electric bass
Andy Roth—drums
Doug Wieselman—clarinet, tenor and baritone saxophones
Danny Barness—vocal on 2 tracks, banjo, electric guitar
Eyvind Kang—viola
Kate & Anna McGarrigle—vocals on 3 tracks
Julie Wolf—vocal on 1 track
Dave Carter—trumpet on 1 track
Steven Moore—trombone on 1 track
Tucker Martine—tambourine

Produced by:

Wayne Horvitz

Comments:

I have to rave about this wonderful album. It's a complex, evocative cycle of songs that become richer the more I hear them. We saw her perform some of these live when she opened for Veda Hille about a year ago in Vancouver (funny how we went to Vancouver to hear her when she's a local artist here in Seattle), and hearing her made me anticipate how wonderful this album would be, and it is—it repays all of that anticipation and then some.
     Like Veda's and Emily Bezar's and several others, Robin Holcomb's albums are the kind that take a few plays to adjust your ears to so you can really hear the music, and the more I hear this the more I love it. A couple of the songs are immediately catchy, like "Like I Care," while others are subtle and less structured and take some listening to really appreciate. But the album is utterly worth it. This is probably her best album so far, and is my favourite with the possible exception of her first self-titled album, which I have a long emotional attachment with.
     Those of you who love Veda and more experimental music will love this album. Highly, highly recommended. (Neile)

John Brown's Body

Release info:

2006—Tzadik—TZ 7716

Availability:

Wide

Ecto priority:

Recommended if you like contemporary instrumental composition

Group members:

Robin Holcomb—piano, voice

Guest artists:

Eyvind Kang—viola
Dave Carter—trumpet
Steve Moore—trombone, glockenspiel
Joanna Lewis (Koehne Quartet)—first violin
Anne Harvey-Nagl (Koehne Quartet)—second violin
Petra Ackermann (Koehne Quartet)—viola
Melissa Coleman (Koehne Quartet)—cello

Produced by:

Robin Holcomb

Comments:

Robin Holcomb returns to making instrumental composition with this album, but she works for the first time with a string quartet. There are lovely parts, but overall the album doesn't really hold my attention. I do think this is much more a reflection of my taste than the quality of the music. The title track, one of the few songs with vocals, is one I love. (JoAnn Whetsell)

I'm entirely with JoAnn on this, and again, it's more a reflection of my tastes than the quality of the music. There's something wonderfully captivating about Robin Holcomb's singing that I absolutely love, and I want more of it. Contemporary experimental jazz and classical music isn't really my thing, though I have loved it when I've seen Robin Holcomb live. (Neile)


Further info:

Wayne Horvitz, Butch Morris, Robert Previte, Doug Wieselman and Bill Frisell recorded Holcomb's compositions for the album Todos Santos (ca. 1988/89). Holcomb recorded compositions with Doug Wieselman, Marty Ehrlich, Wayne Horvitz, David Hofstra, Robert Previte for the album Larks, They Crazy (ca. 1988/89). The New York Composers Orchestra recorded her piece "Nightbirds: Open 24 hours" for their 1990 debut self-titled album.

Robin Holcomb performs "I've Got Blood in My Eyes" on The Mississippi Sheiks Tribute Concert—Live in Vancouver concert DVD (2010). Compilation work includes:

  • "Dead Horse"* on Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs and Chanteys (2008)
  • "I've Got Blood in My Eyes for You"* on Things About Comin' My Way: A Tribute to the Music of The Mississippi Sheiks (2009)
*Track otherwise unavailable

Collaborations include:

  • "Interlude (Side A)" and "Interlude (Side B)" with Bill Frisell on Frisco Mabel Joy Revisited: For Mickey Newbury (2000)
  • "Hanging on a Star" and "Road" with Veda Hille on the tribute album Poor Boy—Songs of Nick Drake (2004)
  • vocals on Northwest Sinfonia's recording of Wayne Horvitz's Joe Hill: 16 Actions for Orchestra, Voices and Soloist

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DISCLAIMER: Comments and reviews in the Ectophiles' Guide are excerpted from the ecto mailing list or volunteered by members of the list. They are the opinions of music enthusiasts, not professional music critics.

Entry last updated 2011-04-27 23:47:51.
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