‘Falling Under Spells’ – James Combs

4 stars (out of 5)

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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):

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