If you’re looking for an opportune auditory retreat from the utter madness that is 2020, then Brent Cobb has just dropped one right in your lap, and not a moment too soon. Like taking a slow drive through the countryside, or sitting on the back porch on a Sunday afternoon with a jar of tea, give Brent Cobb about 45 minutes of your time, and he’ll get you to feeling right.
Not that Brent Cobb was in need of reinvention walking into his next album, but when he announced he was going on an acoustic tour at the beginning of 2020 instead of one with the full band, this was the first signal that the Georgia born and bred songwriter was going through a bit of a recalibration of approach and priorities. Where moments of his last record would peg him as the modern-day Godfather of country funk, his new record Keep ‘Em On They Toes is smooth and easy, quieter, more stripped-down, and as reflective as the first nip of fall in the early evening.
You can quibble with what collection of Brent Cobb songs is his best. With the work he put into his Grammy-nominated Shine On Rainy Day and his last record Providence Canyon, there’s some stiff competition. But there’s little debate Keep ‘Em On The Toes is Cobb’s most cohesive. Going into the effort with a clear purpose of expressing the simple and eternal country philosophies of following your heart, respecting everyone, minding your own business, and enjoying the uncomplicated pleasures life has afforded you, it’s an album with a strong and resolute message, just delivered as easy and laid back as could be.
One song after another, Brent Cobb uses sweet melodies and slow grooves to remind us to not sweat the small stuff, live life, and let others live theirs, whether it’s direct like in the duet with Nikki Lane called “Soap Box” about avoiding divisive subjects, or “Dust Under My Rug” about being left alone, or the subtleties and truths of Cobb’s personal life found in “Sometimes I’m a Clown.” Brent Cobb has decided life is too short to stick his nose into scandal, or try to become a superstar. He wants to be a father and a husband first, and enjoy the ride.
And Cobb is practicing what he preaches with the approach of this album. Instead of using his hot shot producer cousin Dave Cobb, Brent went with Brad Cook this time. Instead of releasing the album on major label imprint Elektra, he elected to go with his own label Ol’ Buddy Records distributed by Thirty Tigers. This “keep it simple” philosophy is imbued in every note of Keep ‘Em on They Toes. It doesn’t mean Brent Cobb isn’t still open to ambitious results. But like Don Williams, he’s going to do his thing and put priorities such as family first. If he can find success that way, awesome.
And don’t expect any 6-minute, and 12-second spoken-word addendums from Brent Cobb to accompany this record extrapolating upon the underlying meaning and what you should make of it. He’s pretty direct to begin with, aside from the song “Shut Up and Sing” that may have some on both sides of the cultural divide drawing wrong conclusions. That’s because has has the audacity to say that both sides are right, and wrong.
Sometimes saying nothing says it all and then some more
Conjecture causes bull and fuels unnecessary wars
Poets know hiding the truth somewhere between the lines
Somehow makes it seem worth more for those looking to find
Some answers to the troubles this life brings so
They shut up and sing
But like his fellow independent country riser Tyler Childers, Brent Cobb has taken to heart the idea that to speak to people of the country and write country songs, you have to be deeply embedded in the culture, understand the turns of phrases, colloquialisms, and vernacular, and use language in a way that is compelling and responsive to what country fans want. More so than any of his other works, Keep ‘Em On They Toes is Brent’s plainspoken south Georgia perspective personified in song, and that richness is hard to not find appealing, no matter how foreign or familiar in might be to the audience.
Whether through providence or accident, Brent Cobb has released the record for right now. You just put it on and get lost in it, like music is supposed to do. It is a respite, but not as a simple escape or a distraction, because as Cobb reflects, prioritizes, and puts things in perspective, so do you. It’s not that the world outside isn’t something to be worried about, and there aren’t issues that should weigh on our conscience. But things should always be filtered through the natural wisdom that even the simplest among us contain, and sometimes in greater measures.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8.5/10)
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