Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors

Magnolia Music, 2017

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
-- Martin Luther King, Jr.

I don’t know about you, but it’s been a tough year around these parts so far. There’s an abundance of blessings to celebrate in the day-to-day that’s close at hand, but there’s also a dark cloud hanging over the wider world. Around the time this cloud descended, one contrarian friend—a fellow much like yours truly, who gets down sometimes but who is ultimately a bull-headed optimist—put his finger on one of the biggest silver linings of the country’s current situation, saying, in essence: “Yeah, but the art… the art is gonna be GREAT!”

I couldn’t help but reflect on that comment when taking in Souvenir, the sixth studio release from folk-rock stalwarts Drew Holcomb And The Neighbors, an album overflowing with the very qualities it feels like we need most right now: kindness, compassion, warmth, integrity, and underneath it all, a steely determination.

The songs—primarily from Holcomb, but with multiple co-writes with Neighbors Nathan Dugger (guitars and keys) and Rich Brinsfield (bass), who each contribute one solo-written track as well—are consistently generous and full of heart, beginning with the lilting, lyrical celebration of love (and lust) “The Morning Song.” This immediately appealing, deeply romantic opener is framed by acoustic rhythm guitar and Holcomb’s engaging, entreating voice, as he tells his lover “I want to quit all our troubles / I want to see your roses bloom / I want to shake your foundations / I want to send you to the moon.” Holcomb’s rich tenor mostly soars like a more controlled Jeff Buckley, occasionally descending into a throaty Van Morrison-esque growl.

Holcomb’s warm presence at the mike is equally engaging on the more propulsive “California,” featuring bigger guitars and a narrative that has a bit of a Jimmy Buffett feel in its first-person, here’s-a-few-thoughts-about-something-I-love conversational style. “Fight for Love” is the first song I heard from Holcomb and the one that led me here, a big-boned, punchy number built around the simple, powerful idea that “You’ve gotta fight for love / Fight for what you’re dreamin’ of.” In the third minute, his vocals briefly take on a grittier cast, giving his generally soft-spoken Americana a little rock ‘n’ roll turbo boost.

The second and third acts of the album find Holcomb and band (Dugger and Brinsfield with support from drummer Jonathan Womble, producers Ian Fitchuk and Joe Pisipia, and vocalist/guitarist/spouse Ellie Holcomb) trying on different looks, fitting their sound to the song. “Rowdy Heart, Broken Wing” is a slight number that slows things down leading into “New Year,” a pulsing midtempo contemplation addressing everything we don’t know about life: “It’s a new year, it’s a new song, it’s the same mystery.” (I feel that so often… it’s hard to understand at times, but all in all, life is good… and it certainly beats the alternative.)

Brinsfield’s pleasantly wistful “Sometimes” opens like a late-Beatles piano ballad before blossoming halfway through, leading into a tasty guitar solo. By contrast, the ukulele-driven “Mama’s Sunshine, Daddy’s Rain” has the sunny playfulness of a Jimmy Buffett or Jon Troast tune. The Holcomb-Holcomb duet “Black And Blue” has a bit of a Beatles feel as well, though the Jayhawks are probably closer to the mark; either way, it offers nice drive and this bit of wisdom: “You cannot love what you control.”

The next two cuts move more into country-folk territory, the naturally nostalgic “Postcard Memories” featuring steel guitar, acoustic and harmonica, while Dugger’s “The Yellow Rose Of Santa Fe” goes full-on traditional country and western, a song that feels like it could have slipped between the folds of time off a late-’50s Buck Owens LP.

Closer “Wild World” is another highlight, opening with a distant siren before moving into a steadily unfolding, fiercely optimistic take on today’s dispiriting politics: “Try a little tenderness / Maybe some benefit of the doubt / Another person’s point of view / Try to listen and not shout / Hold your opinions loosely / Maybe you’re not always right / Show a little mercy and hold onto love real tight”—because in the end, “Love is all we’ve got to give away.”

Holcomb’s gentle confidence up front gives this music a deceptively easygoing storyteller/troubadour vibe at times, but this album is much deeper and richer and stronger than that might make it sound. There’s something timeless in the group’s presentation of these songs; they end up feeling like standards, songs with the bones and muscle and warm blood running through them that will allow them to stand up for a lifetime.

In the end, Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors’ Souvenir emerges feeling like a balm for the wound to the soul represented by the selfishness and brutality of the current political moment. It’s an album full of kindness, generosity, warmth, compassion, and grounded, clear-eyed optimism. In a clouded-over year that’s been tough for a lot of folks to get through so far, Souvenir is a bright ray of sunshine.

Rating: A-

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© 2017 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Magnolia Music, and is used for informational purposes only.