Thursday, May 17, 2018

album review: 'providence canyon' by brent cobb

So I'll admit I regret not talking about Brent Cobb sooner - but in all due fairness to myself, I can imagine a lot of folks maybe overlooking him. The cousin of acclaimed indie producer Dave Cobb, he got the attention of the indie country scene by satirizing bro-country in 2015 with 'Yo Bro', but he came to much greater attention thanks to his appearance on the compilation Southern Family, which remains one of the best records of the 2010s and one of the few I've ever given a perfect score. And yet even with that, Brent Cobb seemed to slide into the background: I really liked his detail-rich, earthy songwriting, but they guy had the misfortune of being placed in the track order between Jason Isbell and Miranda Lambert, who delivered much more impressive songs.

But in digging into his 2016 album Shine On Rainy Day, I came to realize that unassuming, low-key charm was less a bug and more a feature of Brent Cobb - primarily acoustic, with the sort of roughscrabble detail and texture in his lyrics that reward repeated listens to really sink into the vibe. And 'vibe' is a key qualifier, because while there are a few exceptions like the excellent 'South Of Atlanta' and 'Let The Rain Come Down', that record was perhaps a little too low-key for its own good - comfortably riding the firm bass, hints of smokier guitars and rich acoustic warmth to really kick up a groove, the sort of background music that brought a ton of welcome texture and would definitely be an underrated gem for folks who like indie country, but amidst an avalanche of excellent country in 2016, it's no surprise it might have faded to the background. 

Well, that's not quite the case in 2018, and if the buzz was true and Cobb has cranked up the tempos to lean into the southern Georgia funk influences that had been lurking beneath his sound for some time, we could have something pretty unique and interesting here, so what did we get on Providence Canyon?

Honestly, this record is deceptively tricky to talk about - and indeed, there was a part of me thinking that it might be best to place on the Trailing Edge because after the first half dozen listens it didn't seem like there was much to discuss. But the odd thing about Providence Canyon is that while you could simply describe it as a more upbeat, more southern-fried groove-driven indie country record, that description does place it in its own subcategory in indie country right now, not so much leaning on the muscle shoals sound but something closer to a Lynyrd Skynyrd record from the mid-70s with a modern update. And yet even with that, I'd struggle to call this a great record - a good one, sure, with a fair amount of personality, but I can't help but feel it's missing that factor to put it over the top.

And honestly, it's tough to put one's finger on exactly where that is, so let's start with Cobb himself. Now to his credit with the firmer grooves and quicker tempos he has to play more of an active presence in these songs, and he proves plenty capable - his vocal timbre doesn't exactly have a lot of body and can feel a little nasal at points, but it matches the general ambiance Cobb presents, never quite leaning into the extremes of emotion and letting more hang in the subtext than outright text. And it helps he leans into his bluntly self-critical side, comfortable being the guy on the sidelines sketching out the story that somehow will consistently get laid every single night regardless, with the sort of wry, easy going charm to feel the room and see what happens, for good or ill. Hell, the angriest he gets is on '.30-06' and that's more of a level threat at someone accusing his wife of cheating, or his slap against those 'selling out' in the music industry to get ahead on 'When The Dust Settles', and even then it's more exasperation and the sure knowledge he'll outlast them in the end. Granted, I'm not always certain the multi-tracking flatters him, especially when his delivery gets more conversational on songs like 'Ain't A Road Too Long' - along with a cadence that can feel a shade awkward at points, but that's more a conversation about production, where Providence Canyon is the most immediately distinctive. And I'll admit a little surprise when we got to songs like 'Mornin's Gonna Come' where the bass groove and percussion line is the most pronounced and sharp you'll hear outside of funk and R&B - I made an early comparison to Lynyrd Skynyrd and you can definitely hear the same creative DNA between this and their mid-70s work before the plane crash, accented by sharper, developed guitar phrases, acoustic support, and hints of saloon piano and organ to flesh out more melody. And when this album leans into those grooves you get some pretty impressive results, from the more kinetic drums on '.30-06' to the smoky barroom hookup of 'Sucker For A Good Time' - and hell, even some of the midtempo tracks like 'Come Home Soon' and 'High In The Country' feature more pronounced grooves than you'd ever expect emphasized by Dave Cobb.

But this is where we start encountering some issues, and Dave Cobb on production might as well be the first. To be blunt, as much as I think he does a good job fleshing out the groove on this project, the electric guitar tones really don't carry the sort of fire to do them justice - which really hurts them on the solos - and songs like 'Lorena' are crying out for a great fiddle line - for as much as this record straddles the line between country and southern rock, it doesn't quite commit fully to either and that can hurt some individual tracks. Then there are the compositional moments that feel interesting in concept but a little underwhelming in execution, most notably a tempo shift midway through 'If I Don't See Ya' to something more sultry... and then Cobb introduces a lo-fi shift for the outro that doesn't really add much. On the flip side there are moments that can feel almost too conventional - sure, I might like the straightforward snarl of 'King Of Alabama', but the title track ahead of it might almost be too sedate, and I found myself wishing for the compositional experiments like 'Let The Rain Come Down' - although on the topic of Shine On Rainy Day, this record does have the same abrupt ending that album did.

But really, most of these issues are aesthetic nitpicks, the production and compositions are solid and this record keeps a pretty brisk clip in clocking around forty minutes, so is the lyrics that are the issue? Well, yes and no - on the one hand, Cobb being a little more reflective and self-aware means that 'Mornin's Gonna Come' and 'Sucker For A Good Time' provide plenty of detail of the incoming disaster when he wakes up in yet another woman's bed - one thing that makes some of the posturing of '.30-06' a little hard to buy, even if the groove does enough to compensate. And I do like how reasonable he is on 'Lorena' in appreciating that she has to go on beyond him and he cherishes what they had, or 'High In The Country' where he acknowledges his own lack of focus contributed to the breakup, or the anxiety of 'Come Home Soon' where not having the home base leads him to stray into his vices, specifically alcohol. And I do like the underlying attitude of the writing - laid-back and observational, but not cynical or condescending, and it leads to songs like the tribute to the late Wayne Mills 'King Of Alabama' who was shot by a friend but it almost becomes a passing detail in the greater story of the man's life. But at the same time, it can make the record feel a tad slight overall, from the feeble deflections of 'Sucker For A Good Time' - dude, don't play here, it's definitely your fault you nailed this guy's girl - to the unlikely hopes the girl returns on 'If I Don't See Ya', when she's likely long gone. But when you realize he's likely moving on just as quickly, it can get tough to get more invested, especially as you get the feeling those grooves are going to keep moving him along. 

But as a whole, this is a solid enough indie country record, defining a deeper niche blending in funkier southern rock with an easygoing vibe that might not stick more deeply, but it's still plenty enjoyable while it's here. Again, I feel there are points that are a tad slight in the songwriting and it could have afforded to take more chances - and when I tack on the production quibbles it does knock the album back a bit - but Providence Canyon is still a fine listen for me, netting a light 7/10 and definitely a recommendation. Folks, this is going to fly under a lot of radars - definitely worth your time if you give it a chance, check it out.

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