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Nice Dream If You Can Get It

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Album Review

James Combs' 2004 effort is an unexpected pleasure that should get more attention and hopefully yet will. Both the lyrics and something in the atmosphere of the album suggest a parallel to fellow L. A. denizen Tom Waits' portraits of lost souls and fractured emotional extremes (and there's even a bar song, "Gold Star"), but Combs carefully sugars the pill, singing his lyrics with a gentle grace and creating, with the help of various guest musicians, a variety of approaches from tightly wound rhythms and grooves to a glazed psych-into-Velvet Underground sonic atmosphere. The way that the opener "OK It's Sunday" slightly suggests "Sunday Morning" is perhaps a slight acknowledgement to that very band, down to the same way that a pretty arrangement is off-set against a lyric of wasted energy. Elsewhere there are string synth melodies that turn into queasy nightmares, jaunty waltz/cabaret-like dances, late Beatles-styled confections and solo acoustic folk efforts, all of which are tied together via Combs' singing quite nicely. The use of songtitles like "My Darling Enemy," "Lazy Son" and most memorably "You're Firing All Your Friends" demonstrate the bubbling anger and cutting character observation at play. Beyond simple song names, Nice Dream is suffused with images of failure and reaching after something that seems impossible to grasp, with the concluding "Burning Car" wrapping things up on a note that's both critical of another and self-lacerating. "Low Go Getter" is even better at this, being a perfectly quiet and entrancing song about two people so stuck in a rut that all they can do is look at the stars but can barely even get that far. Combs and Bryony Atkinson's singing, meanwhile, is simply lovely falsetto work, a soft balm.


Genre: Rock

Years Active: '00s

With his controversial lyrics set to modern acoustic arrangements, James Combs turned Bloomington, Indiana-based art rock band, Arson Garden, into one of the most promising young bands in the Midwest. In addition to leading the band on successful tours of North America and Europe, Combs played an essential role on the group's three albums – Under Towers in 1991, Wisteria in 1992 and The Belle Stomp in 1994. Leaving Indiana, in the mid-1980s, Combs temporarily lived in Boston and Chicago before settling...
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