Good American Songbook: Vinyl
For all his other accomplishments since his near-outsider bedroom pop debut Shakewelle, you’d forgive Dallas songwriter Bob Cummins Jr. for a just-okay follow up. Since re-releasing his debut on Portland, Oregon’s Big Secret Records, Bob has developed a reputation as a first-call north Texas session player, earning sideman gigs across the state,
For all his other accomplishments since his near-outsider bedroom pop debut Shakewelle, you’d forgive Dallas songwriter Bob Cummins Jr. for a just-okay follow up. Since re-releasing his debut on Portland, Oregon’s Big Secret Records, Bob has developed a reputation as a first-call north Texas session player, earning sideman gigs across the state, leading to a spot in Midlake spinoff group Harry Zimm.
But Good American Songbook is 11 songs of classic tunesmithing with modern touches that belies Cummins’s age. Here, Cummins is disciplined, writing like peak Paul Williams or Randy Newman on side A before moving to obscure Dylan-inspired and resurrected Wrecking Crew tunes on side B. Refined with Portland producer Andrew Jones, the album’s flourishes reveal influences that stretch into contemporary pop and top liner territory — “Analou” pays its respects to Frank Ocean while the intimate yet sweeping ballad “Here (and That’s Alright)” respectfully nods to Ethan Gruska. Though Cummins’s home base is in the golden era of 60s mainstream songcraft, he leans forward to find kinship in anthemic New York-style 80s piano songs with the LP’s opening salvo, “...But That’s My Life.” The guitar-driven jangle pop closer “Your Gold Chain” is as much essential Byrds as it is the best of Wilco.
For the Bob Cummins Jr. heads who have been around since his strange beginnings, Good American Songbook is still purely Bob. As mature as the writing and production is here, one can still hear playful Moog melodies and Nintendo 64 sounds — you’ll find no soundfonts here, by the way. Cummins and Jones tracked down the original Roland patches on real digital synthesizers that Nintendo sampled for Super Mario 64. Recorded between Denton, Texas’s Echo Lab (courtesy of Jason Isbell and Shakey Graves producer, Matt Pence) and Jones’s Portland studio, each song is arranged as idiosyncratically as one has come to expect from Cummins, but grounded by three pianos, an array of synthesizers and drum machines, a case of orchestra percussion, a coconut, and live takes cut with a full band in-studio. In short: a lot less MIDI this time around, but it’s no less interesting.
"The album represents a snapshot of a year of my life," Cummins explains. "The worst of that year battled hard with the best, and both are apparent in the music. The pandemic happened, my band fell apart, I met my girlfriend, I lived in three different places. Sometimes more than one place at once. This release was meant to be a stripped down, more raw version of my last record Shakewelle, and it was born from collaboration with Andrew Jones, who brought MIDI-controlled Logic demos into the real, tactile world. This record is steeped in the feeling of The Beach Boys' Love You — that maybe the best is behind you, but there’s enough ahead to keep moving on and making music. Writing songs while wasting away in an apartment, separated from society, as someone who otherwise would have the world at their fingertips."
Early drafts of tracks from Good American Songbook drew features from buzz-generating songwriter and fellow Dallasite Amari Amore, and Bristol, England’s troubadour Benjamin Spike Saunders (Gold Day Records, Katy J. Pearson). Cummins may already be gathering laurels with this outing, but he’s staying humble. After all, the songbook he’s building is — for now — just “good.”