Andrew Combs is either ignorant of or recording in deference to the past by rekindling the gilded countrypolitan spirit on his sophomore release, All These Dreams.
Poor Charlie Rich. The Kanye West of country music before there was a Kanye, Rich was essentially blackballed for his intoxicated, fire-setting presentation of John Denver's 1975 CMA Entertainer of the Year Award win. Just two years prior, the "Silver Fox" was a crossover success with his chart-topping "The Most Beautiful Girl"; today, he's a staple of thrift store record bins and a footnote as the one-time poster boy for the "Nashville sound".
Generations removed from the height of prime time variety shows and multi-chart appeal, 28-year-old singer/songwriter Andrew Combs is either ignorant of or recording in deference to the past by rekindling Rich's gilded countrypolitan spirit on his sophomore release, All These Dreams.
Combs' 2012 debut, Worried Man, swayed heavily towards the minimal production of today's Americana, full of aching hearts, errant pedal steel and uneasy peace; three years later, the Nashville transplant by way of Dallas, Texas, returns with a polished collection of songs that glide along a path tread by the likes of Rich, Ronny Milsap, Conway Twitty – both CMA award winners in 1975 – and that year's hosts, Charley Pride and Glen Campbell.
Employing current Nashville mainstays Jeremy Fetzer (guitar) and Spencer Cullum (pedal steel) of Steelism – themselves no strangers to vintage sounds – Combs and the duo are flanked by a host of string players and backing vocalists including Natalie Prass to manifest the sound of Nashville's first crossover age on uniformly wrapped bonbons such as the willowy "Nothing to Lose", "Strange Bird" with its Mayberry whistle and cooing outro, and the soaring "Long Gone Baby", a period study in studio excess complete with strings, castanets and timpani.
Not wholly foregoing the darker edges of Worried Man, Combs opens the album with the repentant "Rainy Day", seeking to point out man's hypocrisy in times of strife. The observational "Pearl", a dour cardboard character study of skid row occupants, urges one to not judge a book by its cover via a litany of clichés. The numbed B movie pastiche "Bad Habits" benefits more from the ambience created by the song's players than the cloistered heartache of Combs' benign roadhouse lyrics.
Repentance being a recurring motif on All These Dreams, Combs' spiritual bent is woven through the absolution-can-wait "Slow Road to Jesus" and baptismal closer, "Suwanee", perhaps All These Dreams's most honest and earnest song. "In the Name of You", a genuflecting piano ballad, doubles as a love song and abiding, religious ode.
Unlike Rich et al, Combs pens his own material. Yet, when compared to Americana contemporaries such as Caleb Caudle and John Fullbright, Combs strives for a more adult-oriented pop sound, one favoring style over substance. More crooner than songsmith, Combs' recitations on All These Dreams ring as hollow as a Hallmark greeting card. Buffed away are hardscrabble ballads like "Please, Please, Please" and "Lonely Side of Love" from Worried Man; in their stead are blatantly perfect studio arrangements prettied up by studio veterans.
Flawlessly rendered and unoffending to a fault, the perfection of All These Dreams is its greatest shortcoming. If Combs' intent was a tongue-in-cheek skewering of Nashville's past, All These Dreams would warrant genius status. However, his admission on "Foolin'" that "Every move I make / In the name of good intentions / Is a well-planned sleight of hand / Calculated direction" points south of such an ironic aim. As Rich and West have both demonstrated, sometimes a lump of coal is more entertaining than a diamond.