Album review: "Into the Dark Unknown"
A soul-baring song cycle that’s derived from a performance piece, Holcombe Waller’s “Into the Dark Unknown” is a contender for least macho album of the year. Waller is an arty Oregon singer-guitarist who sings of self-doubt and self-destruction — and occasionally sillier stuff — in a quavering tenor that can climb so high it sounds as if he has handed off the vocal to his sister.
These songs are rooted in 1960s folk-revival balladry, and include an uncharacteristically boisterous cover of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Qu’appelle Valley, Saskatchewan.” While such tunes as “Baby Blue” use only voice and acoustic guitar, others enlist rippling piano, melancholy strings and breathy harmonies, suggesting a doleful sort of cabaret music. In fact, numbers such as the Joni Mitchell-like “About Time” were recorded live and originally composed for a revue titled “Into the Dark Unknown: The Hope Chest.”
Waller is an assured writer and performer, and his more eccentric conceits don’t usually detract from his material. He can’t quite balance Ayn Rand references with a druggie parable (in “Atlas”) or pull off a giggle-inducing refrain like “now you are a unicorn” (from “The Unicorn”). But when they sidestep mythical beasts for language that’s direct and personal, Waller’s songs illuminate the darkness.
— Mark Jenkins, June 24, 2011