Souvenir is their tenth album in just twelve years (a fairly impressive work-rate by anyone’s standards) but Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors remain relatively unknown outside the United States. If you’re new to them and happen to like your American roots music passionate and delicate; strong and fragile; sweet and bitter all at once, then Souvenir is definitely, positively, absolutely going to be your bag.
Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors last release - 2015’s rightly highly-praised Medicine - was an exquisite, near-perfect study in Americana, so it was always going to be tough to follow. Wisely, Holcomb and Co. have chosen to innovate rather than recreate and, as a result, the leaner Souvenir is more diverse than its predecessor. The band’s sound and character remains largely intact but there’s more sonic experimentation; a bolder approach to production and a broadening of horizons, with the rockers rocking harder and the ballads whispering closer.
The gently-strummed textbook Americana of opener 'The Morning Song' has all the magic of Ryan Adams at his very best with the added bonus of being bound together with Holcomb's pleasing David Gray-esque warble. The song is an effortless-sounding instant classic, perfectly arranged with splashes of keyboards, guitars and percussion, all thoughtfully placed. Aside from being irresistibly catchy and sway-inducing (I swayed, I challenge you not to) it is nothing short of a masterclass in production restraint - courtesy of Ian Fitchuk and Joe Pisapia, the team who were also responsible for Medicine.
Upbeat rocker 'California' notches up the pace, blasting in with electric guitars and harmonica. Like a thousand other songs with the same title that came before it, it is a love-letter to The Golden State. 'Fight for Love' which follows continues the raucousness - all cacophonous drums and harmonica set to ‘howl’ this time - and was apparently recorded straight after the shock US election result. No wonder, then, that there’s a kind of rage apparent in the heft of Holcomb's visceral, throaty delivery here. There’s a chaos and rawness to these two tracks that just wasn’t present on the band’s previous release and is notoriously hard to capture in the studio environment.
The more intimate 'Rowdy Heart, Broken Wing' sees The Neighbors stripping things back and the song's drumlessness permits a welcome change in tone, as acoustic fingerpicking is left to drive things forward. By contrast, the loop-like drums and blippy sampled harmonics of 'New Year' give the clever illusion of electronica. This, for me, is the record's high point, keeping things interesting slap bang in the middle of things. It helps, too, that the song that lies beneath is so beautifully drawn, mourning the passing of time and marking the ways in which some things never really change.
The piano-led 'Sometimes' has some subtly psychedelic touches (trippy filtered vocals and, delay-soaked drums) and, being penned by bassist Rich Brinsfield alone, feels very different from anything else on the record. Guitarist and keyboard player Nathan Dugger also gets a solo writing credit on the unashamed old-school country ballad 'Yellow Rose of Santa Fe'. With lashings of pedal steel, it’s a timeless slow-dancing vignette (see Country Songwriting Manual page 27: “fleeting yet powerful romantic encounter from the past, narrated wistfully”) and sees Holcomb delivering some choice lines: “She read me like the front page/And she loved me like a storm/Though she fixed me with her cold gaze/I’ve never seen a smile so warm.” It’s cheese of course, but cheese of such quality is extremely hard to resist.
The jewel in the album’s crown is arguably the sad and beautiful closing number ‘Wild World’, led by Holcomb’s stark vocal and fingerpicked guitar, then joined ever-so-gently by Dugger’s piano. Its simple, ageless message of love and tolerance is timely, particularly in present-day America but, of course, applies to all of us. Souvenir is full of this hope and positivity and is a record that really deserves to have a long reach. Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors are preaching unity already, as this album has such a wide stylistic appeal, but I think it’s high time they had even more converts to the cause. At the risk of sounding cheesy myself, this is no tacky impulse purchase at the gift shop; it’s the kind of Souvenir you’ll cherish for years.
'Souvenir' will be released April 21st in the UK / Europe.
Review by Rich Barnard