James Combs “Falling Under Spells”

High Pine Steeple Records, 2022

Byrds and Beatles influenced folk-pop filtered through 21st Century americana with ambient textures.

James Combs has featured in numerous Americana UK pieces over the years as a member of the LA band Great Willow and having his songs covered by legendary LA band I See Hawks in LA, as well as his solo offerings. It is 35 years since Combs formed his first band, Indiana’s Arson Garden, who played what some have called ethereal power pop, and while Great Willow is his main gig, ‘Falling Under Spells’ is his fifth solo album. The fact that Great Willow were named the Best Americana Group at the LA Music Critic Awards is an indication of Combes’ songwriting and singing skills. Here he shares production with John Would who has worked with everyone from Fiona Apple and Lucinda Williams, the heartbeat of the music is maintained by drummer Matt Hergert, I See Hawks in LA’s Paul Lacques is on guitar, singers April Mann and Kelly Atkins, and extra texture is provided by Wendy Kline on violin and Joe Hellerstein on horns. As you may have guessed, James Combs makes americana music for people who think they don’t like americana music.

The opening track ‘Ruleless Games’ with its Beatles’ influenced trumpet, makes it clear that ‘Falling Under Spells’ is not going to be a traditional americana album. April Mann, Combs’ sister, is featured again on ‘Strange Signs’ with ringing guitars on a song about trying to keep in touch with your own humanity while dealing with life’s complexities. ‘Remember How We Used To Dance’ brings echoes of the Byrds’ ‘Younger Than Yesterday’, with Kelly Aitkens replacing April Mann on vocals. Matt Hergert’s drums kick-off ‘Until This Wave Rolls By’ and includes what sounds distinctly like James Combs’ banjo in the mix. Next, we are in rootsy Beatles territory with ‘True Believer’, with a laid back tune that features piano, organ, and acoustic guitar and the track holds a surprise towards the end when a trumpet, in a very small way, invokes the sound of Miles Davis when he collaborated with Gil Evans. Combs then moves back to LA for a modern take on the americana sound of the Byrds with Kelly Atkins providing lush harmony vocals on a song that looks at the endless cycle represented by lockdown, ‘Circle Days’. Kelly Atkins is also on hand for the light psychedelia of ‘Joy Is Allowed’ which is a reminder that everyone should seek joy where they can, no matter what else may be happening. Paul Lacques dobro helps ‘Cut and Run’ maintain its positive view that love can ultimately make things better. We get a hint of the metaphysical in ‘Spells’ that imagines the Beatles and Byrds recording together but they didn’t have the female voice of Kelly Atkins. ‘Everybody Inside’ is a sparse repetitive lament about the lost freedoms due to lockdown that heavily features Combs’ acoustic guitar and piano, with Kelly Atkins. The closing track ‘Nowhere Fast’, again features Kelly Atkins, and invokes the now timeless sound of Laurel Canyon with Wendy Kline’s violin, and Matt Hergert’s drums are upfront in the mix, which is appropriate given his contribution to the overall sound of the album.

James Combs may wear his influences on his sleeve, but that doesn’t mean he can’t create original music, far from it. Apart from his dedicated fans and LA music critics, James Combs is still a bit of a well-kept secret to the wider listening public. Hopefully, the success of I See Hawks in LA has helped raise the profile of Great Willow and James Combs by association, and if that is the case then ‘Falling Under Spells’ could become the most successful of James Combs’s solo albums. To that fertile mix of folk, pop, twang, and psychedelia Combs brings his undoubted songwriting skills and his refusal to be contained musically by any narrow definition of genre. Listeners who are aware of Combs and Great Willow will need no prompting, fans of I See Hawks In LA will be aware of this, so that just leaves the curious folk-pop and psychedelia fans who need the push to give ‘Falling Under Spells’ a listen, you won’t be disappointed.


About Martin Johnson 399 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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