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Robin Holcomb

Remember Americana, that contrived musical format that radio programmers tried to push down the public's collective throat back in the '90s? Seemed like the label got slapped on every other punk-rocker who grew sideburns and played rockabilly on an acoustic guitar. But look up the word Americana in Webster's Unabridged, and you'll find it actually refers to "books, papers, maps, etc., relating to America, esp. to its history, culture and geography."

So if you're talking authentic musical Americana (the "etc." allows some wiggle room), pianist, composer and singer Robin Holcomb ably supplies it in her graceful and complex combination of avant-garde jazz, gospel, dustbowl blues, folk stylings seemingly direct from the Antebellum South, the New England coast, Appalachia and the Midwestern heartland.

And there's no better example than on The Big Time, Holcomb's fifth album but her first in six years. Holcomb has refined and clarified her haunting American Gothic sound, creating her best recording yet. It's just this side of perfect, leaving enough room for improvement to keep the fans waiting breathlessly for the next one.

On the album, Holcomb relates tales of love and loss and mystery in a rich quaver that, like Victoria Williams' voice, draws the listener back to elegant old-timey music, and somehow sounds timeless. Her support band essentially consists of the funk-jazz ensemble Zony Mash, which includes her husband, organist Wayne Horvitz, and heavy-duty ringers such as guitarist Bill Frisell, violinist Eyvind Kang and folk legends Kate and Anna McGarrigle

Holcomb's music has the effect of simultaneously invoking ages-old traditionals and the latest shock of the new. Her band swings when it needs to, but most of the time the players attack her meticulously plotted tunes with a masterly precision.

The guitar squalls and Hammond B3-heavy slow groove of the opener, "Pretend," help set the right tone, then the McGarrigle sisters add a delicate gospel-folk chorus to the gently sardonic "Like I Care." The piano-guitar stomp of "You Look So Much Better" comes on like an electrified rock version of one of Aaron Copland's stark, staccato scores for a work by choreographer Martha Graham, and "Sit Right Down" conjures the spirit of Civil War-era songsmith Stephen Foster. "A Lazy Farmer Boy" uses elements of Celtic music and bluegrass to construct a hairpin-curve melody that sounds surprisingly like modern experimental music.

Looking for the missing link between downtown NYC jazz and The Band's gospel-rock revivalism? It's here, and it's terrific.

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