James Combs

To Know You Is to Save You

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James Combs' sense of sharp sentiments balanced against sweet arrangements has remained his strong calling card over the years, and To Know You Is to Save You, his follow-up to Nice Dream If You Can Get It, continues his understated streak of excellence on 12 poppy songs that feature his easy falsetto, ear for sudden theatricality (check the stabbing strings and post-G-funk keyboards on "Oh Me" for an initial hint), and lyrics often -- not always, to be sure -- touching on obsession, frustration, anger, and doubt. It's a better portrait of a Los Angeles state of mind than most outsiders realize, and puts him high on a list of observers of the area like Steely Dan, Los Lobos, and Stan Ridgway, all with his own spin. Thus the rolling punch and strut of "Better Days" -- with Danny Levin's guest trumpet adding an almost nostalgic kick -- talks about a promised future where everything pays off, but which seems certain never to arrive. In contrast, the title track, a good example of his ability to conjure up slightly uneasy-sounding songs, pretty and unnerving at once, helps to emphasize a sense of connection in a rough environment. Musically, he and the many side performers and friends who back him throughout happily tackle a total patchwork of styles; if he has a core to his vocals and guitar, everything from understated funk loops to late-night jazz and random vocal drop-ins adds to the flow. It's a fusion that doesn't call attention to itself as heavily as others, and so the lushly moody acoustic guitar and strings of "Bathing Suit" readily lead into the tense new wave and nervous singing of "Barely Contained," to mention one quietly contrasting example of many.

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