Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Kicking Up The Dirt: New Albums by Andrew Combs & Paul Weller

With a voice that is a cross between Don McLean and Ray LaMontagne, Andrew Combs's effervescent sound is impossible to resist. His new album Canyons On My Mind (New West) is a charmer, to say the least. But behind all that charm is a lot of gold, as we learn how serious this young songwriter from Texas reveals himself to be. The first track is an edgy rock song called “Heart of Wonder” with its Andy MacKay (Roxy Music) sax solo, but it’s a bit of a ruse. Combs is a country artist, after all, so I don't think he’s going to fool anyone with his fondness for glam-rock. So he mixes it up on this record with a variety of 11 songs that sound fresh to my ears. For instance, “Rose Colored Blues” could have been recorded in the mid-sixties with its simple string arrangement and up-tempo, “countrypolitan” feel. It’s really nice to hear a new generation proudly wearing their Glen Campbell t-shirts in the studio. On each track he sounds focused and committed. There's nothing worse than hearing a singer who isn’t fully committed to his or her own songs.

Combs, at the age of 30, has a lot going for him. Born in Dallas and now a working resident of Nashville, he's got the goods for a long career in contemporary American music. His co-write with the great Joe Henry, no less, on a lovely song called “Lauralee,” reveals a lot of confidence on his vocal. Besides, any association with Henry is a good sign that Combs won’t fall victim to the more commercial sounds of the dread L.A.-Nashville country pop currently filling the airwaves. In fact, on the song “Blood Hunters,” he’s pushing the musical envelope recently occupied by Beck with the sound of big guitars mixed with bright harmonies. Combs thrives with variety as opposed to the tried and true, and he backs it up with a first-rate studio production. Skylar Wilson and Jordan Lehning are the producers. (Lehning is the son of Kyle Lehning, the long-time producer and engineer who’s worked with Randy Travis, George Jones and Bobby Bare, among others.) As far as the songs are concerned, the mix of character studies with political relevance isn’t lost on the listener. One of the strongest anti-Trump songs this year is “Bourgeois King.” Combs takes the piss out of the man by describing his President as “mulching America.” It’s a song full of fearful angst; if I were in my 30s right now I’d have a lot to be worried about too. On this particular song Combs’s lyrics and the 3/4 time signatures could have easily come from the pen of Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan before 1965. But Combs isn’t going to be trapped by paranoia either, so he graces Canyons On My Mind with some top-notch love songs such as the beautiful “Silk Flowers” and “Hazel,” a "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" for 2017.

If it’s possible to embrace pragmatic idealism in 2017, then Paul Weller could be considered its poster child. His soulful new album A Kind Of Revolution (Parlophone) covers a lot of subjects, but Weller ponders the larger question on the last track as he wonders if it’s an “impossible idea that love might change the world.” Weller as an idealist understands how pragmatic one has to be in order to move forward rather than simply resting in one place. So on this new album, Weller’s 13th solo effort, he puts everything he values up for discussion. Subjects include modern art (“Hopper”), immigration (“Satellite Kid"), religion (“One Tear”), urbanism (“New York”) and ecology (“The Cranes Are Back”). These subjects are fuelled by Weller’s cautious optimism about the future as he seeks to find a balance between what’s possible and what to hope for as an artist. Consequently his new album, released on May 12, has a sense of wisdom about it, grounded in the knowledge that hope has its own pitfalls. As he sings on the second cut, “Nova,” “Can’t seem to let it go, / There’s too much to do, / Into the space where everything goes, / Flowing out like a river flows to the sea.” In spite of the challenge Weller won’t give up on what’s possible.

What I like about Paul Weller, in particular on this new album, is his forthright honesty. The veteran British rocker wears his heart on his sleeve but he’s not looking to cry on anybody’s shoulder. He emerged during the punk scene with the great Brit-rock trio The Jam in the mid-seventies, and the youthful energy of Weller’s muse still drives his lyrics today, only now the words are more refined. In musical terms his second band, The Style Council, expressed the passion and the power of love filled with the idyllic sounds of Motown. Now, at age 59, his idealism continues to be tempered by facing the present day, forsaking nostalgia. A Kind Of Revolution is rooted in R&B, reflecting his love of American soul music, but it's merely a comfortable format that grants him the chance to assert himself while remaining honest about the work he feels he has to do to improve the human condition. The result is a form of self-analysis looking forward. As he says on the song “The Cranes Are Back,” “Form a kind revolution / So from that hope and a new world born.” That’s a long way from the class struggles of “Eton Rifles."

– John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. John is also the author of  Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left To Know About The Father of Invention (Backbeat Books)

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