‘High Pine Steeples’ is a love song with a difference. The object of James Combs’ love is California’s redwood groves which and the relationship dates back to the time when he first moved to California. On this song, James is joined by The Well Pennies, Bryan and Sarah Vanderpool, long-time friends from the California scene.

The song portrays the redwood groves as natural places of worship, not just through the lyrical content, but also the way it’s arranged and produced. The arrangement is spare with minimal percussion and lovely harmonies and the production bulks out the sparsity by using a lot of reverb to create a lo-fi and dense texture with instruments and vocals bleeding into each other that evokes both the natural beauty of the trees and the grandeur and claustrophobia of the giant trees; it’s almost a tone poem in triple time. It’s definitely worth investing three minutes of your time on this.

‘High Pine Steeples’ is out now to download and stream.

Here’s the official video for the song:

Why release two singles on the same day? Well, you could equally ask why not. In a week when Taylor Swift holds the top ten positions in the singles chart with album tracks, it’s obvious that the model of releasing a single to trail an album isn’t relevant now. So if you have two cracking tracks ready to go and you’re not creating physical copies, why not just get them out there online and see what happens. And that’s where we are with ‘My Mystery’ and ‘Only Two Ways’.

The core of Great Willow is Erin Hawkins (vocals, and also cello on ‘Only Two Ways’) and James Combs (songwriter, vocal, guitar and piano) joined by Jimi Hawes (bass) and Ed Barguiarena (drums and production), joined by Abby Posner (mandolin and banjo) and Paul Lacques from I See Hawks in LA adding some very evocative lap steel on ‘Only Two Ways’.

The playing on both songs is laid-back and immaculate, evoking the Laurel Canyon artists of the seventies (you can feel the sunshine, which is more than welcome in a British November). Both songs have a country rock feel, but they have other influences shining through as well. ‘My Mystery’, telling the story of a lover’s sudden desertion has overtones of neckerchief rock, with an intro not a million miles away from Ronnie Lane’s ‘How Come’. Erin Hawkins’ vocal emphasises the vulnerability of the deserted lover, particularly when she drops towards the bottom end of her range, while the vocal harmonies add a touch of sweetness.

‘Only Two Ways’ has a very simple message, encapsulated in the first two lines: “Only two ways to go, And one of those ways is back”. James Combs lead vocal hints at Neil Young, enhancing the melancholy and the production then adds a couple of the saddest instruments from the arranger’s palette, cello and lap steel (the latter evoking bird cries towards the end of the song).

‘My Mystery’ and ‘Only Two Ways’ are perfect examples of the songwriter’s art and the arrangements allow the songs to breathe while using subtle fills from the guest players to enhance the mood.

Both singles are out now.

Here’s a video for ‘Only Two Ways’:

It looks like it may be some time before we escape the influence of the pandemic on recorded music, particularly in the areas of Americana and folk where the traditions of storytelling and reflecting the world around us are important. ‘Falling Under Spells’ isn’t crammed with references to COVID, but it’s certainly the basis for the album’s two closing songs, ‘Everybody Inside’ and ‘Nowhere Fast’, while the problems of twenty-first century America, including its forty-fifth President, are also themes that permeate the album, along with a few magical and mystical references.

The album’s opening song ‘Ruleless Games’ attempts to explain the unfairness of the world to a child and features some of the album’s sound signatures, the muted trumpet sound and the plaintive, higher register, Neil Young-like vocal of James Combs that’s echoed by the Crazy Horse feel of some of the arrangements. The horns are gentle and muted, not the strident stabs that are used to punctuate our soul classics; they’re more mariachi than Motown or Stax and contribute to the mellow feel of the album.

There are a few more nods in obvious and less obvious directions to other musical styles on the album. ‘Spells’ hints at The Byrds with some sixties tremolo guitar and maybe even a touch of The Stones’ ‘The Last Time’ (with added trumpet); all elements that you might have heard in referenced in the Americana canon. ‘Cut and Run’ is slightly different in that the reggae-tinged arrangement has more than a hint of the Gorillaz song ‘Clint Eastwood’ with piano and slide guitar. The title repeats like a mantra through the song as it urges us to abandon America’s twisted priorities (and their hype-man).

Despite the ominous and mystical feel of songs like ‘Strange Signs’ and ‘Spells’, ‘Falling Under Spells’, manages to generate a gentle wave of optimism for the future with songs like ‘True Believer’ and ‘Joy is Allowed’, a reminder that even in the most awful times, it’s ok to find joy somewhere. And any album that’s underpinned by the gentler side od Neil Young is fine by me.

‘Falling Under Spells’ is released in the UK on Friday May 27th on High Pine Steeple Recordings (1001).

Here’s a link to the video for ‘Strange Signs’ (featuring April Mann):