Medicine

Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors

Magnolia Music, 2014

http://www.drewholcomb.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/09/2019

Drew Holcomb is that one guy in your circle of friends who everybody likes. He’s clever, affable, earnest. Modest, but not overly so. Pleasant. Inoffensive. Dependable.

Yep – I used the D word.

Don’t get me wrong. Holcomb and his band the Neighbors are very good at what they do—that being producing reliably appealing, intelligent Americana that draws strongly on its folk roots but ranges into rock and pop and country and even gospel when the moment calls for it. I adored the group’s 2017 album Souvenir, with its pointed, at times earthy odes to love and authenticity in an era when the Big Lie has become king. This in turn inspired further exploration of Holcomb’s back catalog.

Holcomb’s folk roots and tendency towards introspection sometimes remind of David Wilcox, but he’s not a solo troubadour, and his band The Neighbors is tight and versatile. Opener “American Beauty” starts out spare and acoustic but picks up elements—electric guitar, percussion, harmony vocals, keys—with each verse, before stripping them back again for the final reprise. “Tightrope” offers a similar build, adding wife Ellie Holcomb’s harmony vocals and a denser arrangement, but doesn’t achieve any real push and pull until the final minute. This initial pair of songs is so carefully scrubbed and pleasant that at a certain point they start to feel like vitamins, the nice chewable orange ones that go down easy.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“Here We Go” is where things start to get interesting, as Holcomb invents the genre of country-folk-rap, speak-singing the verses and getting a decent flow going, and then goosing the choruses with a bit of a honky-tonk swing. It’s a playful shaggy dog of a song that makes you want to get down and roll on the grass with it. The bold, muscular “Shine Like Lightning” follows, the album’s clear highlight, an anthem to resilience with a big heart and a welcome touch of swagger. It would have fit right in on Souvenir, a song with real emotional stakes and a powerful arrangement that grabs and holds the listener.

If only that was the start of a trend on this album, rather than the last real standout moment. “Avalanche” is a pleasant enough folk-rock love song, gentle and earnest, but drifts away without leaving much of an impression. In the same vein, “You’ll Always Be My Girl” is a sweet and sentimental ballad, just acoustic and piano and voice, that ends up stronger for its simplicity.

The next two tracks are the most frustrating, both carrying potential that’s largely unfulfilled. The energy level jumps significantly as the gospel-funk undercurrents of “Sisters, Brothers” work hard at motivating and energizing the audience; if only the goal expressed was something a little more specific and compelling than “We’ve got to stand up for each other.” Next up, “The Last Thing We Do” suffers from a similar flaw, leading with an urgent, rather Springsteenesque guitar-piano-drums attack in support of a battle cry that’s as generic as they come: “We’re gonna try and make things better / If it’s the last thing we do.” So, um, yeah—which things, and how?

From there, the album slips into a gentle slumber as Ellie Holcomb’s harmonies add to the pathos of bluesy lament “Ain’t Nobody Got It Easy” and the count-your-blessings rumination “I’ve Got You,” before Holcomb closes the proceedings with the suitably elegiac “When It’s All Said And Done,” a celebration of perseverance and loyalty.

The title of Medicine suggests the album was intended as a balm for wounded souls. And indeed, much of the album takes a soothing tone; there’s no hint irony or sarcasm to be found. There’s also, alas, no edge. I have no objection to sustained earnestness when the songs are compelling, but Medicine too often slips into a pasteurized, generic approach that undercuts the stronger moments present. Of the 12 songs on this album, only “Shine Like Lightning” and possibly “Here We Go” feel like essential Drew Holcomb to me. The rest feel like second drafts of songs he intended to go back and sharpen into shape, but never did.

Rating: B-

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