Album Review: Holcombe Waller
In 2008, Portland based performance artist and musician Holcombe Waller was commissioned by the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, in partnership with On the Boards of Seattle, to create “Into the Dark Unknown: The Hope Chest”, A show which fused Waller’s airy, introspective folk tunes with theatrics and video installations (Waller happens to hold a Yale degree in Art/Video installation). The show was well received, and Waller toured through last year in cities across the US and Canada, and visited Croatia with his ensemble, The Healers.
Waller will release his fourth album today, and play a release show this Sunday. Into the Dark Unknown is a collection of live recordings culled from the tour of the same name. Portland Monthly caught up with him for a quick session at PAM earlier this month as part of our PAM Object Lessons series:
PAM Object Lessons: Holcombe Waller from Portland Monthly on Vimeo.
On his last effort, 2005’s Troubled Times, Waller departed from the pop hooks of his first few releases and replaced them with airy folk songs about love and politics. This trend continues on the new album, as Waller weaves his fragile voice and the sparse guitar-strumming together to create an album rife with poignant lyrics and an emotional weight that lingers well after the disc is over. The title track of Into the Dark Unknown (aka The Marriage Song), delves into Waller’s conflicted feelings about marriage, brought on by a friend’s wedding. Waller, like many in the gay community, struggles with a longing for the right to marry, but at the same time laments the institution as a hetero-normative construct.
“Risk of Change” is the second track on the album, and is one of the stronger ones. Here, Waller reins in his voice and finger picks his way through a twangy tale about finding his true self and the sense of freedom gained from the fearless anticipation of what’s to come. Waller certainly sounds more like his contemporaries on this track (fellow folk troubadour Josh Ritter, for one) as the rawness in his vocal delivery gives the song and the album some much-needed girth.
Meanwhile, the song “Hardliners” is an earnest, simple-sweet love song, beautifully arranged and poised for inclusion on romantic mixes everywhere.
But overall, it’s Waller’s considerable vocal refinement that take center stage, as he effortlessly hits those high notes. When Waller isn’t playing up his echoey, majestic choir-boy folk, his voice sounds fresh and youthful, (or, I daresay, a bit like Dashboard Confessional) giving little hint of his considerable life experience (which includes producing two albums for a band of fellow Yaleys who would later join The National) His pensive lyrics, on the other hand, make it clear that Waller has a great deal to say, and moreover, he’s intimately familiar with the subjects he chooses, giving his music a credible edge that many artists struggle to achieve.
Holcombe Waller’s new album, Into the Dark Unknown , comes out today, February 15. Waller will play a show at the The Alberta Rose Theatre in Northeast Portland on February 20. For more upcoming arts events, visit PoMo’s Arts & Entertainment Calendar, stream content with an RSS feed, or sign up for our weekly On The Town Newsletter!