When you hear the pure pop bliss of ‘Foolin’, the first single from All These Dreams, the vocal tics of Roy Orbison and the production tricks of Phil Spector are probably the first things that come to mind. Once you’ve stopped hitting repeat on that track and take in the whole album it’s clear that Andrew Combs in fact belongs to a much more contemporary, if rare, breed of singer-songwriter. He shares his careful songcraft with the likes of David Mead, Justin Rutledge and Joe Firstman; artists whose pursuit of the perfect song seems so immersive that none of the fashion and trends of the last forty years can ever be the slightest bit relevant.
Combs, originally from Texas, is a Nashville-based jobbing songwriter, so it comes as no surprise that this record has a marked country flavour, but the pop (very much in the 1960s sense of the word) arrangements are what set it apart. This is the main difference between All These Dreams and the rawer barroom swagger of Combs’ debut Worried Man.
So, Andrew Combs’ second album is a record that sounds as if it could have been made long before he was born but still manages to sound vital and urgent, rather than tired and rehashed. Combs treads the correct path between pastiche and homage and dresses his songs impeccably with musicians I can only assume he’s cloned from some secret vat of legendary session player DNA. There’s a whispered grit to Combs’ vocal delivery which belies his 27 years and is reminiscent of the seemingly ageless Ryan Adams. Everything else, arrangement and production-wise, is just perfectly placed: swelling strings, beautiful rhodes, washes of backing vocals and neat, florid track endings.
Opening track ‘Rainy Day Song’ is a tender and world-weary affair but is beautifully done and sets out the stall nicely. Combs mines the Pretenders and Paul Simon in equal measure with the bouncier ‘Nothing To Lose’, while the bleakness of songs like ‘Pearl’ and the brooding ‘Month of Bad Habits’ display a more mature and reflective side which wasn’t as evident on Combs’ debut and thus gives this record a good balance.
The infectious toe-tapper ‘Long Gone Lately’ is another contender for hit single, replete with castanets (yes!) and a simple tremolo guitar theme, topping and tailing proceedings. Once again it’s faultless pop loveliness, even in spite of the Ennio Morricone-inspired whistled solo… not something I would ordinarily encourage.
A welcome change of mood comes with the palate-cleansing piano ballad ‘In The Name Of You’, presented with nothing else but the pleasing thunk of double bass, obligatory weeping strings and gentle, swirling Hammond. Then the castanets are back again with the title track ‘All These Dreams’, which has a vintage neat-and-tidy guitar solo I’m sure Hank Marvin would be proud of. Album closer ‘Suwannee County’ is pared-down Americana and along with ‘Strange Bird’ (the whistled solo here I simply cannot forgive, incidentally) these two tracks are as close as we get to straight ahead country.
The influences may be barely concealed - I think the last time I heard timpani used this shamelessly was by Enya - but the reason that this release stands out is that the songs underneath are just exquisitely formed. Very few chart acts of today (or the last twenty years) write songs with such an obvious old-school pride and this means that this album simply reeks of quality. If carefully written songs are what get you going and you yearn for some old-fashioned production touches then look no further than Andrew Combs, he proves that songwriters can still make your spine tingle in 2015.
Review by Rich Barnard.