The Big Listen: Brent Cobb – Keep ‘Em On They Toes

Inspired by moving back to Georgia, the country troubadour’s fourth album feels like having a conversation with an old friend. There’s no place like home.

Brent Cobb
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Classic songwriting, universal themes and adroit, spacious production combine on a record that’s a refreshing tonic for the destabilising times we’re living in.

Returning to Georgia after spells living in Nashville and Los Angeles was vital to the genesis of Brent Cobb’s fourth album, the follow-up to 2016’s Grammy-nominated Shine On Rainy Day and 2018’s Providence Canyon. It’s a record, he says, more about thoughts and feelings than people and places, yet the concept of home is a theme he returns to frequently across its 10 somniferous tracks.

“It’s funny because the last two albums were about me growing up in Georgia, and now we’re back here,” he says. “I’m not writing about missing it anymore, so the songs are coming from within now. It’s not a longing for home, it’s what I think about now that I live down here.”

Equally important to a becalming country record that glories in its reflections on life’s simple treasures, flecked with simple, considered acoustic guitar playing, was the vision of Brad Cook. Admired for his work as a producer and sideman for numerous discerning Americana acts including Bon Iver, Hiss Golden Messenger, The War On Drugs and Sharon Van Etten, Cook paints with a minimal palette throughout, ensuring Cobb’s soulful Southern tones and the gentle, rhythmic picking of his Taylor acoustic are allowed to shine.

Recording in Durham, North Carolina, a city with its own rich musical heritage and home to modern-day lynchpins such as MC Taylor and Brad’s brother Phil, the pair took inspiration from the sparse instrumentation of Jerry Lee Lewis’ 1977 Country Memories album; serving the song was always paramount.

The succinct opening title track, co-written with Cobb’s wife Layne, reads like a letter to their new-born son, brimming with familial life advice and delivered with sweet devotion. “Just listen to your heart/ listen to the rain/ listen to whatever it is that keeps you sane,” Cobb sings in wisened, nurturing tones in its verse.

When electric guitars do enter the mix, as on Shut Up And Sing, they’re used sparingly. Here, they play a gentle palm-muted supporting role to the swinging fingerpicked bass notes, Cobb refusing to be silenced by a social media troll who tells him to keep politics out of his performances, wryly adding “and then he hit me” before an ostentatious wail of a harmonica begins duelling with a dancing fiddle part. He returns to that same trope on the sprightly Soap Box, this time a collaboration with his father Patrick and featuring Nashville singer Nikki Lane’s “perfectly imperfect” harmonies. Accompanied by what could justifiably be termed jaunty piano playing, Cobb quips: “I don’t preach, no tricks, don’t talk politics, I’m just a casual singer holding my stones and my sticks”, before urging “let’s hop off the soap box and get along”.

Brent Cobb - Keep Em' On They Toes

The air of convivial quietude and Cobb’s desire for a quiet, harmonious existence endure as the album unfurls steadily, his chords always selected carefully. The shuffling autobiographical Good Times And Good Lovin’ is given a wistful air by the presence of a swirling fiddle, the best line Cobb’s poetic “It’d be a sin to pretend this is forever, that that full moon will hang on by a thread for all time”.

Sometimes I’m A Clown is equally reflective and dryly self-deprecating, Cobb “laughing through the tears”, and trying to “lose those red nose blues”, while the emotive draw of his home state returns to the surface on the bucolic This Side Of The River, adorned with just enough gentle percussion and fiddle. Brilliantly, “even the catfish think chicken liver is a better bite on this side of the river”.

Tidy acoustic playing is the bedrock of When You Go, as Cobb considers his legacy and arrives at the futility of sweating the trivial details in life. Better still, roiling delay textures and some beautiful volume swells add weighty gravitas to The World Is Ending, written in 2011. It’s a thoughtful rumination on humanity’s perilous future and Cobb’s humble place within it, that finds him “shooting stars out my window, down the barrel of the gun/ ricochet off a moonbeam, look there goes a sun.”

Brent Cobb

“Keep your light lit, keep a tight grip on all the good folks that you love… there’s a lot of truth in all that little stuff, ain’t that enough?” Cobb concludes sagely on closing track Little Stuff, a delicate fingerpicked guitar and shaker given space to permeate. Cobb has revealed it’s a song inspired by recent experiments with magic mushrooms and its lysergic revelations prove a fitting closer for an album of profound observations, universal themes and appreciation of the elemental virtues of home, family, love and song.

“To me, listening to this album feels like I’m sitting there with somebody, having a conversation,” Cobb says. “I would hope that it feels like sitting with an old friend you haven’t seen in a while.” It absolutely does, and in these uncertain times, that’s a rejuvenating tonic.

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