Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Andrew Combs and Steve Moakler

Andrew Combs – Sundays

Andrew Combs played the main stage at C2C back in 2016 and was in the UK for a week of UK dates including The Long Road and The Grace in Islington. He was promoting his fifth album and cherrypicking songs from his other four, two of which came out in 2019. He announced Sundays with a frank message on his Facebook page which began: ‘Chaos is the norm these days. But what comes from chaos?’

Now signed to Loose Music but essentially an independent musician, every review of Sundays is thus clouded by a revelation that he had a nervous breakdown, brought on by anxiety and depression, last year. The opening track is called (God)less, which sets the downbeat mood of the album.

Andrew has chosen to have a snare hit running through every track on the album, with no cymbal crashes or frills, so that people can focus on the melodies and words. That’s not to say the arrangements aren’t without merit. A saxophone parps halfway through the gentle Mark of the Man, one of the tracks on which Andrew’s voice soars into the upper register. The brass comes back on Down Among The Dead and there is a cathartic guitar solo on Drivel to a Dream.

Still Water (‘you see what you want to see’) has a triangle or cymbal twinkling in harmony with a lo-fi arrangement of bass and snare drum. If Andrew turned up the guitar this could be a power-pop number, but he has been deliberate in setting the lyric to a quiet piece of music.

Adeline, with its sweet yet forlorn chorus, is gorgeous. Truth and Love sounds like a mid-period Radiohead track, with a liquid guitar line and Andrew’s lyric mentioning shady places and being ‘tarred and feathered’. Closing track Shall We Go is a cappella besides a droned harmonium sound.

This is an album that will grow in stature every time you listen, and it demands active rather than passive listening. It is completely out of time with the current moment, which makes it all the more stark. Good on Loose Music for backing Andrew to do his own thing in his own way. From chaos comes order, it seems, or a semblance of it.

Steve Moakler – Make A Little Room

On the other hand, Steve Moakler has no such qualms. A staff writer for Creative Nation, which was set up his fellow songwriter Luke Laird, Steve wrote Riser for Dierks Bentley and Angel Singin’ for Reba. He knows the system and wants no part of it when it comes to putting his own music out there. Thomas Rhett gifted him the song Suitcase, which was the first thing I heard of Steve’s way back in the mid-2010s and which came from an impressive album Steel Town.

Since then he has released three more albums, the most recent coming in August 2022. Make A Little Room is full of songs written during the past two years where he enjoyed more time than he had planned with his newborn son (and there’s a second on the way). Steve takes his music directly to fans when he goes on road trips, getting to know the people who connect with his tunes.

Dan Wharton has already called it ‘the best album by some distance’ which he has heard this year, so who am I to doubt Dan’s excellent opinion? For a start it’s 33 minutes long so it can’t outstay its welcome. As with many staff songwriters, especially Ryan Hurd whose voice hits the same timbre as Steve’s, the voice serves the song and doesn’t burden it with curlicues or melisma.

The title track opens the album, with a computerised track underscoring a carpe diem lyric full of imagery and character. ‘Turn the TV off!’ Steve suggests, ‘put a little more space between livin’ and dyin’. You Being You is a sweet song to his son: ‘Life’s a wild ride…Chase all of your dreams’ is his advice, and dad’s voice threatens to crack in the final chorus.

Pack It Up takes the theme of moving house (well done to Steve for getting ‘dust bunnies’ into the lyric) and extends it to kids running around the yard. Tennessee Girl is a fine love song with plenty of cities and songtitles namechecked, while Steve puts his life in a song on Northerner (‘chasing Southern song’). The title is a very good word to sing because Steve can hold the first syllable over several notes of the bar.

Steve is helped by some A-List buddies. Barry Dean and the aforementioned Luke Laird were in the (zoom) room for Let’s Go to the Lake, which begins with the line ‘everybody’s got their poison’. Steve’s is to get in touch with nature and ‘drift away’. Autumn Came Back, a song about the end of a summer love, features vocals and piano from its co-writer Lucie Silvas. The melody is tremendous and I hope the song finds an audience. Drummer Neil Mason from The Cadillac Three co-wrote Start A Band, an ode to the road; you can tell Neil is a drummer because there’s a stomp on every crotchet.

Better Days is a lovely tune with a deceptively bleak lyric that taps into the current era: ‘Been losing ground but we can’t lose faith’ is almost a protest lyric. Closing track Numbered has an end credits feel and lists things you can count: candles, beer, the time it takes between seeing lightning and hearing thunder. As with Andrew Combs’ record, this is an album to dip yourself into, which comes from the pen of a seasoned writer/performer.

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