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Cass McCombs - Catacombs

Cass McCombs


(Domino Recording Co.)

Cass McCombs’ fourth full-length release, Catacombs, delivers 11 haunting, vivid, and sometimes amusing folk-driven ballads dripping with a youthful Americana that was merely hinted at on McCombs’ previous albums. Almost gone are the lo-fi, bedroom-crafted charms of previous efforts A and PREfection. On this record, McCombs takes a cleaner approach, focusing more on the songs and melodies than the reverb-drenched waves that they sometimes hide behind.

That’s not to say that he’s gone the way of adult contemporary. His biting wit will undoubtedly prevent that from ever happening. Instead he continues down the trail he first blazed with 2007’s brilliant Dropping the Writ, paying more attention to subtle details and letting the natural space around the music carry the songs. The result is a record filled with warm production and engaging songs that affect the listener emotionally. For every serious tune that tugs at the heartstrings, there is equal and opposite tongue-in-cheek humor in others. For example, the first track, “Dream-Come-True-Girl,” features none other than the forever-fabulous Hollywood legend Karen Black, known for her parts in Easy Rider, The Great Gatsby, and Five Easy Pieces, as well as dozens of B-horror films.) What starts as a nice enough semi-country ballad, easily mistaken for a lost Sun Records gem, grows more peculiar as Black’s atmospheric background vocals meander into playful and teasing yelps of “Take me out!” and silly “Wa-wa-wa!” Just kitschy enough without going overboard. In contrast, “The Executioner’s Song” mixes fairly simple and straightforward lyrics, “I love my job almost much as I do you/I may not get paid much but I more than make up with an enormous sense of self-worth.” The sarcasm in these lines wouldn’t come across without the haunting, hazy, back-porch strumming, sparse piano, and barely there percussion that turns this track into the heartbreaker of the album.

With influences ranging from 1960s pop and Sweetheart of the Rodeo-era Byrds to the playful cowboy musings of Lee Hazlewood, McCombs seems to buck all current trends: destined to fly under the radar, yet often cited as a contemporary influence to bands such as Grizzly Bear, the Shins, and Papercuts. McCombs won’t be selling out stadiums any time soon, but a record like Catacombs always will have a comfy space in many a true music-lover’s collection. Anyone playing music for the right reasons will tell you that’s the best reward of all.

eric kendall

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