Cass McCombs Dropping the Writ

[Domino; 2007]

Rating: 3/5

Styles: indie pop, folk-pop, indie rock
Others: Big Star, Thom Yorke, Elliott Smith

Since releasing his first record in 2002, Cass McCombs has struggled to cultivate a distinctive sound and build a sturdy fanbase. His one EP and three LPs aren't shoddy or derivative, but he has led a nomadic life, and each time he moves to a new city, he hooks up with a new backing band and tries new things. He constantly reboots his artistic hard drive, and he loses a chunk of memory each time.

Dropping the Writ, then, is a minor breakthrough, a sign of undeniable growth. Its tunes are McCombs' most thoughtfully arranged to date. But it also bashes its noggin into an emotional ceiling as McCombs's maudlin vocals do a disservice to his sly lyrics. His dreary croon rains on its own parade.

Shame, because the songwriting's punchy and dynamic. Songs run the indie guitar pop gamut: there's a roadhouse riff laced with wiggy effects ("Lionkiller"), some pared-down, clip-clopping folk-pop ("Pregnant Pause"), a shot of hearty power-pop with a splashing chorus ("Petrified Forest"), a bit of textbook jangle-pop wist ("Crick in My Neck"), and an unabashed Elliott Smith homage ("Full Moon or Infinity"). McCombs has yet to chisel out his own niche, but he's closer than ever to solving the fanbase problem.

He never sounds like a dilettante either, because his pipes (imagine a cross between Alex Chilton and Thom Yorke) always waver within the same emotional register. McCombs' voice remains anchored as its surroundings change. But it also undercuts his lyrics, for which melancholic treatment is rarely intuitive or compelling. A memory like "I took my first breath in a maternity ward" doesn't merit the portent with which his aching voice imbues it.

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