Track Review: The Holcombe Family String Band- Hard Times



The Holcombe Family String Band



Hard Times




Hard Times is available at:

September, 2015

Ragtime; Hokum; ‘Vampire-Jazz’


Leeds, U.K.

Written by C.D. Wallum
Artwork by Frank Garland
© The Holcombe Family String Band. All rights reserved.

The album Ragtime! Hokum! Western Swing! is available from 4th December, 2015


Hard Times– 9.4

The Great Fire of Armley9.2

You Really Done Me Wrong9.2

River, Black River9.3

Oh Celestine!9.4

Rag Mama Rag- 9.4

The Captain9.4

Yo’ Hair’s Too Long9.5

You’re My Woman Now9.3


Hard Times; Oh Celestine! The Captain; Yo’ Hair’s Too Long


Yo’ Hair’s Too Long


Gin House Records

Pre-order the album at:


ANOTHER weekend and another chance to concentrate…

not only on great music- but pursue ambitions and dreams.  In addition to me spiraling some rather tumescent words; there is a band ahead of me: One that makes some old-time and vintage sounds; something unexpected and original- that bucks the trends and familiarities of the music scene.  Before I get to my featured act- and look at unexpected genres; Yorkshire music and the need for the quirky- I am looking at dreams and ambitions- something that is filling my mind this weekend.  As work and the necessities of life become more unfulfilling and infuriating: My brain is looking at something more fulfilling and meaningful; a goal and aim that helps people and makes a real different- through the power and universality of music.  It seems music is the one thing we all have in common: No matter what your mood or state of mind; it has that mesmeric and uplifting effect- able to transcend any situation and do something rather wonderful.  I have been thinking a lot (with regards harnessing its power) and applying it to a charity scenario: Raising money through music downloads; the money and revenue will go to charities and causes- and a lot more besides.  The details are a lot more picturesque and intricate- and something my featured act will not want to steal their focus- but too few people are really chasing passions.  There is a lot of boredom and limits about; too many are just going through motions- living a mundane and everyday life.  There are too few colourful and interesting people; those that really capture the eye and imagination.  When it comes to music, there are still too many grey and insipid musicians- we always look for something enlivening and unique.  When it comes to Leeds’ The Holcombe Family String Band, you could never accuse them of being mundane and one-dimensional: They are a band that is designed to get crowds smiling and dancing: Their music is not niche and divisive- the fun and frivolity is hard to ignore and dislike.  A lot of musicians tend to play things too safe: Often they will copycat others or simply play market that fills market trends- without looking at quality and distinction.  The Holcombe Family String Band have been going a while; making some of the U.K.’s most special and fascinating music- let’s hope they will ascend to the mainstream in years to come.  There is always a risk when making music that is considered ‘quirky’: Not quite every-day; that which dares to harken to the past- tie some under-appreciated genres together- and create something unexpected.  That word ‘unexpected’ is good when you get the recipe right: Ensure the music unites and compels the audience; does not just confine itself to small clans- the Holcombe’ boys have got the balance just right.  Before I continue on my points, let’s have a look at Leeds’ Ragtime fellas:

The Holcombe Family String Band are a Leeds based band influenced by the ragtime, hot jazz, hokum and western swing of the 1920s and 30s.
Following prestigious supports, opening for the likes of CW Stoneking, Sheesham & Lotus & Son, Curtis Eller’s American Circus, Simone Felice, The Dad Horse Experience and The Stray Birds, numerous festival appearances and plays on BBC Radio 6 Music and BBC Introducing, The Holcombe Family String Band have won over fans of traditional and early roots music, taking something steeped in the past and highlighting the perpetual relevance of a music often thought of as primitive or archaic.

Even when music looks to the past, there is still a modern edge: Few bands and acts have an old-fashioned and vintage sound- something that is unashamedly bygone and days-past.  We have a lot of great Electro.-Swing bands- that infuse ‘30s and ‘40s elements into the music- but make sure the outer layer is vibrantly modern.  Few actually go as far to negate the trappings and comforts of modern-day music.  Perhaps there is an issue with fashion-ability and ‘coolness’: Maybe Ragtime/’Hot-Jazz’ music is not the most marketable sound; it is a brave sound to champion- it takes a while to convert those uninitiated and unfamiliar.  I get to review a lot of Rock and Alternative sounds; acts that can easily fit into the mainstream- music that is not that strange or particular.  Over the course of my years, there have been few musicians (that have come to me) that I could truly label ‘unique’- in the sense they cannot be compared to many other artists out there.  Bands and artists can be original; they can mark themselves as ground-breaking- the music they play always have similar-sounding competitors.  When it comes to The Holcombe Family String Band, how many other artists come to mind?  Maybe there are a few here and there; some local acts that plays the same sort of sound- but not exactly swarms of them, right?  When artists start their music careers, they are enforced by their musical upbringing and current favourites: Blending their heritage and youth (the acts that inspired them) with their current heroes- whilst adding some individual personality and direction.  We hear a lot of Pop and Rock acts because music has always spawned these artists/genres: They are the most bankable and favoured; the sounds that get festival crowds fevered and excited.  Artists like The Holcombe Family String Band perhaps have a smaller audience- at the moment at least- and you imagine local crowds in town halls- rather than teaming whores and sweaty gig-goers.  Crowd numbers and following-the-flock mentality does not equate to superiority and longevity: The best new music coming through rebels against the ‘popular’ and media-approved sounds.  If we have learned anything from the week’s music- with Joanna Newsome releasing another intoxicating album- the quirky and magical will always buckle the knees.  Divers is an enraptured and idiosyncratic thing: An album that is an easy listen yet filled with depth and wonder; demanding and beautiful- music that comes along once every few years.  Newsom will get tongues wagging and top ‘end-of-year’ polls: Divers will surely be one of 2015’s most enduring- an album that will not easily be topped.  The Holcombe Family String Band have a similar mix of complexity and beauty; music that should be unpicked- with an outer sheen of beguilement and oddity.  In a straight-laced and sociable music world, I love discovering people who will never be in the middle of a party floor (holding court and being the centre of attention) but are the most interesting and fascinating.  It is the Leeds’ bands non-conformist and personal directions that will see them gain a huge fan base.  Leeds is among the U.K.’s most impressive and fertile music neighbourhoods: From stunning Rock bands to great Pop artists, you cannot fault the ambition, quality and nuance emanating from that wonderful county.  What Yorkshire does well- and Leeds especially- is reviving ‘older’ and oft-forgotten genres.  There are great Electro.-Swing revivalists (Little Violet) to Barbershop and Doo-Wop bands: There are terrific and colourful avenues; some unexpected gems to be discovered- leading an example the rest of the country should follow.

Hard Times is not my first exposure to the glistening band.  Last year the guys released The La La Bird: A five-track E.P. that was one of their earliest cuts.  It not only gave the world a chance to see what they could do: The E.P. contained a lot of rich and memorable material.  The title track opens with a swooning and suave string-picked introduction: You are compelled to tap your feet and click along.  It is a rhythmic and cool-edged beginning that sees images of Devil-dancing and death- there are Country vibes and some terrific vocals.  Our hero is lost in the sleet and snow: He is struggling to move and facing the lure of the abyss.  The lyrics are delivered with gusto and passion: The combinations of string and voice make it a powerful and stunning opening gambit.  Minute Rag is a more juddering and racing start.  Thigh-slapping and merry, it is a song that spirals and dizzies: One of the band’s most uplifting songs, it is a short and memorable blast.  Ten of Spades looks at “good old-fashioned morphine” and company; modesty and whiskey: So many great images and scenes are projected; it is a softer and gentler affair.  Although the vocal and instrumentation begins quite refrained; it has a strong and building undercurrent: The lyrics look at substance abuse- tackling a harder issue- without cheapening it.  Memphis Flu’s scratchy and scurrying beginning gets the mood back into upbeat: Although the lyrics deal with a deadly flu virus; there is that abiding air of dance and rouse- the ecstatic strings and persistent beat keeps the song light and breezy.  Four Heathens ends the E.P. with a more graceful and grand sound: The introduction strings- quivering and trembling- put you in mind of a funereal scene.  The heavy drums and haunting atmosphere keeps building and mutating.  A stunning and captivating opening; you wonder what will come and how the song will develop.  The instrumental track allows you to picture and imagine: It’s scenic and potent strings are evocative and vivid- meaning you can picture your own song and what will occur.  A stunning end to the E.P., it wrapped up a tight and focused effort from the band.

Since last year, the band has developed their sound- not just in terms of song numbers and ambitions- but in terms of themes and subjects.  The production values are stronger and the songwriting follows that rule.  Generally-speaking, the sound has not developed too much- it has not needed to- and they stick with their well-defined blend of Ragtime, Jazz and Hokum- giving you a taste of the U.S. with a British core.  I was excited to delve into Ragtime! Hokum! Western Swing! and see what it’s all about.  Hard Times is its lead-off track and a taste of what is to come- it is one of The Holcombe Family String Band’s most instantaneous and stunning numbers.

The introduction’s opening seconds are very busy indeed.  In addition to a swan-like brass utterance, you get a heady beat and gliding, romantic strings: Fused into a enraptured bond, it kicks the track off with a sense of determination and purpose- one of the album’s most striking and memorable openers.  Bonding together, the instruments remain dignified and tight; making sure they do not become undisciplined and wayward; the opening moments build up the atmosphere- it retains The Holcombe Family String Band’s decorum and fun; that balance of merriment and restraint.  The opening words leave little room for ambiguity and misinterpretation: With his love in hand, our man seems in safe and content mood.  With the breeze and peacefulness in the air, he is going down to Lonesome River.  Hard times will come and plague (our lead) yet he has a strength and wisdom: Whatever happens, he will face it head-on; tackle it and deal with things- at the moment, he is basking in the serenity and calm of the surroundings.  You can picture the dapper lead walk to the river- probably bedecked in a jaunty hat and striped clothing; a nifty pair of shoes- and his sweetheart in tow (again, with some vintage and colourful clothing).  At every stage, Hard Times gives you projections of the past and its simplicity: You could not really imagine the song being set in a modern-day setting; everything seems very innocent and chased.  A lot of modern numbers- when it comes to love and its simplicity- puts you in modern streets and climbs; you always get a sense of modernity- when it comes to this number, your mind goes back to the ‘30s and ‘40s.  Imagining the song in black-and-white, you cannot help but drift inside the story- see things unravel and develop.  Our man looks at his girl- you start to imagine what she looks like and how she talks- as she dances; feather-light and serenely.  With heart very much on sleeve, that overt passion and profession is a rarity in modern-day music- without cynicism or anxiety, you are left with a song that resonates with purity and devotion.  Backing our hero’s voice; the band come together with one of their most defined and understated compositions.  Whilst the strings and percussion back the story perfectly, they allow vocals to stand up-front- as “my little goose” is assessed and watched; that passion pour from the microphone.  In a catalogue that contains its share of mortality and troubles, it is good to see the band present something free from strife and disorder: A song that brims with affection and togetherness- a duo that seem ready-made for one another.  Being the opener of Ragtime! Hokum! Western Swing! it is vital Hard Times delivers an instant punch: Gets the listener hooked and interested; ensures the album starts with conviction.  Our lead attests he must “have done something right”: you feel he has struggled so long; never had the best of luck- his time has come and things are on the up.  In the midst of the effusive and hopeful lyrics; we are treated to extended musical interludes: The band getting a chance to spread their wings and explode with colour.  Whilst other songs (on the album) are most upbeat and springing; here we get a more luxuriant and soothing parable- a composition that appropriately supports the central theme.  At their most together and stunning, the boys let their instruments do the talking: Switching between shivering and triumphant, the composition is a beautiful thing.  Up to the 1:30 mark, the composition changes course and direction.  The strings and percussion rise and fall; they combine and separate- creating something quite wonderful.  A lot of modern tracks ignore the importance of the music: ensure the composition is as strong as the lyrics/vocals- here it is more than a match.  You get a mix of New Orleans and the Deep South; touches of seaside Britain and 1940s dance halls- coming together in that rhapsody of strings, brass and percussion.  When our man comes back to the microphone, he is in pontificating and introspective mood.  Knowing things will not always work out- he is pragmatic among the throws of passion and safety- there will be tough times ahead.  Money comes and “money goes”, yet things will work themselves out- so long as he has his girl.  Whoever the heroine is, she has had quite an effect: I cannot help but picture what she looks like- the long, flowing hair; the cute smile and red heels- and how she evokes and moves.  Through the rain and storms, (the duo) have one another; they can weather things together- no matter what harshness comes their way.  It is a song that ends with a redemptive and high note: You feel our hero will be okay and satisfied; able to tackle anything that comes his way- leaving the listener in a good mood.

The album’s lead-off track; Hard Times is one of the most hopeful moments from Ragtime! Hokum! Western Swing!  Ensuring they kick the album off with a stunning cut, we get all the dependable ‘Holcombe’ hallmarks: The charming and off-beat swagger; the vivid and beautiful stories; those unique and comparable vocals- topped with a united and stunning band performance.  With its polished and gleaming production- that still allows for some rawness and simplicity to be heard- the track explodes with clarity and light; it resonates with its innocence and hopefulness.  Whilst Ragtime! Hokum! Western Swing! has some dark and addictive songs- where substance abuse and the Devil come to play- we begin with a chaste and love-drunk song: One where we can all relate and support; imagine the scenes unfold.  Each band member is at their peak here.  From the passionate and spirited vocals- you cannot think of any other singer when they are sung- and the terrific musicianship: The Holcombe Family String Band are compelling and incredible throughout.  A song not just for lovers of their genres- the Hokum and Ragtime devotees- it is wide-ranging and open to be enjoyed by everyone: It is not a song that pushes people away; it draws them in- a track that could easily be a mainstream success.  With modern-day acts like George Ezra giving a unique world view- a young man in a mature man’s shoes- it seems natural Hard Times would sit alongside Ezra’s insights: You could imagine Hard Times sitting inside Wanted on Voyage (Ezra’s debut album).

Ragtime! Hokum! Western Swing! Is unleashed in a matter of weeks and will be a chance for the Leeds-based boys to do some shouting: Their album is a stunning and jam-packed beauty (a mini-review below) that will see them gain new fans and footings.  They have a dedicated and loyal fan-base, yet deserve a lot bigger crowds: at the core, the band’s music is designed to cheer and provide merriment- it has depth and intelligence; fascinating characters and stories.  Few bands deliver music that has so much charm and distinction; a wealth of passion and energy- masses of quality, nuance and memorability.  Make sure you check-out their new album: Hard Times is a small window into its potential glory; the nature of its business- just what sort of musical beast they have created.  Music provides all kinds of variation and surprise; artists that do not play by rules and regulations- push the envelope and deliver something that defies the odds.  Perhaps The Holcombe Family String band will not be headlining Glastonbury in years to come; they do have a huge potential for international trade- reach foreign audiences and new lands.  At the moment they are performing a lot throughout Yorkshire: Most of their gigs are local and home-based; perhaps that will change in 2016.  Never judge music on its looks or reputation; those that have come before or expectations: Listen to and judge it upon its merits; how it makes you feel- how much you want to keep listening and investigate.  I assess a lot of acts that are quite impressive at first: When it comes to time and consideration, I get slightly lukewarm and ambivalent- few acts really compel me to come back and take a closer look.  A lot of music is quite personal and love-based: Looking at break-up and those kind of ideas; musicians that are more fictionalised and inventive always compel me more- their music seems less draining and introspective.  The Holcombe Family String Band- across the course of their latest album- conspire tales of curious figures and odd scenes; dizzying passions and offbeat heroines.  There are plenty of moments of romantic lust and personal heartache: The band ensures that modern/traditional themes marry with the unfamiliar and vintage- they blend together seamlessly and wonderfully.  What strikes me (about the band) is their energy and commitment: Every song and moment is delivered with endless enthusiasm and passion; a complete dedication to getting through to the audience- as a result, you are sucked into their world and stories; captivated by their smiles and kick.  The instrumentation and compositions remind you of seaside resorts of odd American bars- you imagine a good-time boys band whipping up a boozy crowd- and their vocals are very much their own.  That originality and flair mixes with dexterity and invention: No two songs sound alike; with each track there is a new ambition and sense of adventure.  The Holcombe Family String Band will be future-faces of the music media press: There are only so many po-faced Rock bands you can stomach before a revolt needs to ensue.  Yorkshire and Leeds are a mother-daughter (or father-son) combination that is leading a prestigious and forceful musical charge: This country is the most fervent and forward-thinking in the U.K.  It is because Yorkshire musicians- those that play genres and styles not overly-familiar- look to history and past sounds; polish and renew the older; go for originality and unexpectedness.  With their Ragtime and ‘Vampire-Jazz’ fusions; a dollop of merriment and rabble-rousing- with a suitable infusion of tenderness and compassion- you have a band/music that hits all the senses and ticks all the boxes- one of our most promising young acts.  Music needs a bit of a sort-out and shake-up: Get out of this complacency and embrace musicians that want to be different and better- not simply do what the media expect; play things safe and lack creative acumen.   Hard Times is a stunning cut- and one of the album’s less rousing moments- from an album that is spilling-over with originality and history; plenty of modern gleam and the sound of music with a purpose.  Ragtime! Hokum! Western Swing! Is as stunning and exclamative as the title suggests: A snapshot into the minds and souls of some rather offbeat and charming folk.  If you have not got into their spirit camp: Embraced and dived-into the music they summon; ensure you rectify this.  This year has seen them plan and record; conspire and plot: 2016 will see this all come to fruition; a chance for them to hit the road- take their music to new parts of the world.  Their album is out in six weeks and should be sought by all- you will not hear another album like it.

Ragtime! Hokum! Western Swing! Is an album that hits its stride from the very off.  From Hard Times’ dazzling colours, we come to The Great Fire of Armley.  A fire is in the sky; the scene is set and the Ragtime band plays “every Monday night”.  Whilst the fire burns- and our hero hopes his friends are alright- the band play around him.  The track is mostly light and gentle: The brass stands out and provides a real sense of power and emotion.   Taking you into the song- and giving you a clear sense of what is happening- it is a catchy and addictive track.  Designed for sing-along and audience participation- the chorus is particularly memorable- it sees the band at the peak of their powers.  You Really Done Me Wrong has a rather quirky and unique opening: You have to hear it to get a sense of what I mean!  After the ear-catching opening, we hear about a heroine: She has a fever and is causing our man some troubles.  Backed by his band-mates- who chorus in and support the plight- the heroine has (done our hero) wrong- that strain and heartache comes through.  Whilst the strings sway and pick their way through the lines, the drama increases.  River, Black River opens with more swoon and passion: It has a riparian and autumnal feel to it- more graceful and seductive than previous numbers.  When the vocal comes in; it is quite romantic and seductive.  Our man does not want to remain at the river: Asking to be put to the docks; tossed onto the rocks- he does not want to stay here.  Where the lilies grow- and with his body succumbing to mortality- it is another evocative and image-heavy song.  Lonely and haunted, the song sees our hero pour out his heart- supported by a gentle yet potent composition.  One of the album’s better moments; River, Black River is a confessional and broken-hearted thing: Our man has a resolve and determination; yet his body and mind seem weary and submissive.  Oh Celestine! begins with a soft and catchy beginning: Swooping and swooning in, the song grabs you from the off.  The song’s heroine is quite an intoxicating and beguiling thing: Capturing the hero’s heart, we get images and ideas of the central figure- someone who causes electricity and passion.  The song starts to accelerate and pick-up: The band joins the vocals; the composition gets more frantic and pressing- one of the album’s most energised and toe-tapping statements.  Another catchy and stunning cut; it is one of the album’s highlights.

Once I Was a Navy Man starts with some gentility and refrain.  Another of the slow-building numbers, the vocal is lower down the mix: Sounding almost echoed at times, it crackles with vintage beauty and potential.  Having been at sea for so many weeks, the crew is caught by surprise: A storm capsises the boat; the hero is stricken and in peril- the only soul “left alive”.  With its sleepiness and slow-moving vibe, it is a chance to reflect and stop: You get an opportunity to dive into the lyrics and images; immerse yourself in the song.  Rag Mama Rag clicks its heels and gets to the race rather impressively.  Starting with aching strings and a real sense of motivation, the vocal arrives on the scene- a song that introduces the Devil back in.  The lyrics are some of the album’s best: Looking at young whip-crackers and skin, bones and rocks- there is always a lingering threat and danger throughout.  The group chorusing is one of the song’s defining aspects: When they join in voice, you get the biggest sense of potency and urgency- this is true in the case of Rag Mama RagThe Captain is one of the most instantaneous and fast-talking numbers.  The speedy string and rushed vocals get the energy levels for.  Not wanting to work “for a wage no more”, our hero does not want to break his back- fed up with the rigours and harshness of the sea life.  Keeping us in the realms of the ocean and sea-faring ways; the band’s nautical imagination runs riot- giving us a spellbinding and dizzying array of characters and story.  After a short and memorable track; Yo’ Hair’s Too Long rocks up.  It has a similar compositional feel- when compared with the rest of the tracks- yet its lyrics differ slightly.  Our man has got into a fight: Having been concussed, the nurse says he will make it- there is a cute seduction that begins.  Trying to pick her up; the nurse does not favour the long-haired hero- get it cut and we can talk!  The band’s most humorous and charming numbers, you are always rooting for the befallen lead- hoping he will win the girl.  Getting his hair cut short; he hopes her mind is changed: When it comes to it, things have not changed.  Seemly unchanged and rather picky; she rejects him again- the band’s boys join the fray- and pushes him away.  By the end of the track you feel sorry for the lead- but leave with a smile on your face.  You’re My Woman seems more redemptive and hopeful- given how the penultimate track fared.  Beginning with a stately and dignified string opening, the song is one of the most Jazz-influenced tracks on the album.  Those brass elements define the track; give it its sense of momentum and movement- backing up the lead vocal with aplomb.  With a “taste for whiskey” and wine, our hero has not a penny to his name- that said, he is doing “fine”.  Letting the world “go to Hell”; the rivers dry, there is a matter-of-fact attitude to things- not really a care in the world.  Ending the track with its alcohol-inspired motifs; you are left with a closer that is befitting of the album- that mix of optimism and haunt; the stunning instruments and terrific vocals.

The band have developed since their E.P. days: The album here spreads their sound and shows them at full attack- each number resonates and hits the mark.  Perhaps it will not convert all music-lovers, yet has enough energy, quality and potential to sway a lot of minds- it will certainty please existing fans.  For those looking for something unique and special: Music that does not truck to market forces and tick corporate boxes- giving you something old-time and modern combined- then allow the Leeds band to do their work- and provide something genuinely different and special.  If you want to find a band that do not play by rules- and are too cool for school- then seek-out these chaps and…

MAKE your day brighter.


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