Cass McCombs is an extremely gifted and promising songwriter, but so far none of his records have lived up to his readily apparent potential. In 2003, his woozy shortform debut Not The Way seemed to introduce a great new talent, but in spite of its Velvets-inspired charms, it slipped by without garnering too much attention. A, his first full-length, came out a year later and disappointed me immensely. The melodies lacked the depth and immediacy of those on his EP, and the lyrics and song titles - among them "A Comedian Is Someone Who Tells Jokes" - suffered from what can only be described as a painful surfeit of irony. I wrote him off, and never expected I'd bother listening to another one of his albums.
Much to my surprise, his 2005 follow-up won a number of fans among my circle of friends and co-workers, and when I actually listened to it I remembered why I was such a fan of his EP: he's a sporadically amazing songwriter. PREfection sounded awfully different from McCombs' earlier recordings, sort of like Elliott Smith sitting in with... well, the Smiths. That the album was released by 4AD made his new aesthetic direction all the more apropos. It was a welcome change, and a vast improvement over A. Even though the album was uneven and some of the performances were sloppy - on "Subtraction," in particular, his band seemed unable to keep up with the drummer - the handful of outstanding songs made me come back to it over and over again.
Two years later, McCombs is back and once again living in his native California after spending the earlier part of his career drifting between Baltimore and New York City. Dropping The Writ, his first album for Domino, is enjoyable enough but just as inconsistent as past efforts. The record begins with "Lionkiller," a self-mythologizing, Eastern-tinged rock song that describes his own birth. The track also references astrology, the New Testament, and - inexplicably - watching baseball on TV. The song concludes with the first of the album's awkward lyrical moments, when he declares, "stick a needle in my eye / I'm middle class till the day I die." The chorus of another song is equally bothersome, something along the lines of "crick in my neck / you ask me what the heck."
About half of Dropping The Writ has a breezy California folk-rock vibe that falls somewhere between Beachwood Sparks and Devendra Banhart. The best songs come early in the album. "Pregnant Pause" and especially "That's That," the second and third tracks, are among the best songs McCombs has written so far. "Morning Shadows" sounds a tiny bit like Galaxie 500 and wouldn't have been out of place on the singer's first EP. But unfortunately the album loses serious momentum as it unfolds. You can still sense that Cass McCombs has got a great album in him, but I'm not sure this is the one.