Gaining personal access is the name of the game in the world today, but the less we know about an artist can sometimes be beneficial. Indeed, mystique and ambiguity are dwindling prospects, but they are still alluring ones. Do we really need to hear where our favorite musicians buy their toilet paper? We shouldn't, but many of us do, much to the detriment of themselves and on a much larger mankind-going-down-the-shitter moralistic scale. The lack of personal info to be had on California-born songwriter Cass McCombs indulges all. Basking in his relative obscurity, he is in the position wherein any music he releases is taken at face value without any preconceived notions or personal biases. Of course, past efforts are taken into consideration whenever a new McCombs record comes down the pike, but he mostly presents a blank slate of songs that adopt a wide range of voices unique to him. Indeed, with McCombs, the name of his game is ambiguity, from album to album and from song to song.
While it is rumored that he calls Los Angeles home now (or perhaps Baltimore), McCombs has adopted a nomadic lifestyle for many a year. So, although his travels and travails flavor his songs, they provide no identifiable geographic hallmarks or styles. Accordingly, many songs meander according to their own twisted path. Songs like "Lionkiller Got Married" (the sequel to Dropping the Writ’s "Lionkiller") and "The Executioner’s Song" soldier through five minutes apiece without much action at all. Some may see these and other album tracks as mundane, but they are quite riveting even after just one or two listens. After fifteen, they are downright hypnotic. Raving clubgoers, this album is not for you. However, if this record came with a built-in fireplace and a cask of port, McCombs could probably get elected President.
There is always a differentness to McCombs' work, but it can be tricky to find. It is even trickier on Catacombs than on previous efforts as, true to form, McCombs plays against type delightfully. First song and first single "Dreams-Come-True-Girl" is an Everly Brothers-styled nugget that features haunting vocals from actress Karen Black. This is a typical tack of McCombs: what is basically a lovely western weeper is offset by Black’s weirdo crooning, which is as eyebrow-raising and unexpected as it is understandable and appropriate. In the past, he has punched up the most gentle of numbers with slashes of violent guitar or trashcan thumping, helping to mar proceedings and divide people's opinions delightfully, and he continues this practice on Catacombs, although more subtly than in the past. Nothing is entirely jarring on this record, but there are plenty of slight deviations that keep it in a state of healthy unbalance.
Lyrically, McCombs has always been superior from the pack, and on Catacombs he continues to delve into word spaces with an innate sense of adventure. Many artists do not warrant such a mention; they often fabricate words as an afterthought or to project wishful personas to the world that end up being as shallow and heartless as their true selves. McCombs is a different cat, one who uses words to fictionalize his tales, extricating himself out of the equation completely. I will spotlight the politically-charged gem "Don’t Vote" and the self-labeling "My Sister, My Spouse" ("Do-nothing, roop-scoop, mooch/ Hell, I can take it/ Loyal friend and confidante/ Honey, I could never fake it.") as two particularly strong narratives, but these are merely two instances on an album's worth of clever wordplay. Whether resorting to diverting tricks, insightful lyrics, or devastating turns of tune, McCombs never plays complacent. Personally, I will take my ice cream with surprising bits of syrup or shrapnel as opposed to plain ol' vanilla any day, but these trademark McCombs-isms are the niggling things that will never land him on the cover of Rolling Stone.
I am sure McCombs couldn't give a rat's you-know-what about mass adulation anyway. He has constructed a public shape that flies under the radar (he has mentioned his reticence of giving interviews in the past because he "has the personality of a wet blanket"). That's not to say he is not affecting. Regardless if he shies away from waxing first-person, providing no clues to figuring him out, we feel closer to him anyway. Despite the absence of raucous activity, McCombs has an enviable knack of creating mood memories for his listeners. "Harmonia" is the centerpiece (literally also; it is the sixth of eleven tracks). With its wonderful pedal steel play, it overshadows most of the songs here. But only by a slim margin: "Prima Donna’s" minimal bliss, the repetitive, woozy, amusement park ride coda of "You Saved My Life," "My Sister, My Spouse" (which gives some credence to the Dylan comparisons that are invariably thrown his way), and "Eavesdropping on the Competition" (which mildly approaches a conceptual, Roger Waters-meets-The Beatles for an acid trip in Nashville vibe) are all superb as well. I could do without the last two songs -- "Jonesey Boy" being workmanlike dull and "One Way to Go" too campfire cowboy for my liking -- but these are minor quibbles on a very engrossing disc.
With an eye cocked slyly toward the past, it is difficult to compare McCombs to many contemporary artists. You could throw him in the "thoughtful singer-songwriter" throng in a pinch, I guess, but his closest musical relative might be ex-Pulp/Longpigs guitarist (and powerhouse solo artist in his own right) Richard Hawley. There are definitely big differences in their makeup, approach, and sound, but both revere "classic" sounds while sculpting sickeningly unique niches. Moreover, both are destined to have long careers of varying degrees of "stardom." Sure, McCombs will never be pedestaled by more than the well-informed few, but that's not important. We should worship music on our own time, in our own way, without any interference from mass media herders spouting their nonsense. On Catacombs, as always, McCombs stands as an unfashionable maverick who plays on his own terms, and if that is not good enough for the mindless millions, then tough shit.
2. Prima Donna
3. You Saved My Life
4. Don’t Vote
5. The Executioner’s Song
7. My Sister, My Spouse
8. Lionkiller Got Married
9. Eavesdropping on the Competition
10. Jonesy Boy
11. One Way to Go