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Cass McCombs - Not the Way

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Artist: Cass McCombs

Album: Not the Way

Label: Monitor

Review date: Feb. 20, 2003

Almost The Way

New York singer-songwriter Cass McCombs seems quite timid on his debut EP, Not the Way. The combination of lo-fi instrumentation and vocal reverb often makes it seem as if McCombs is trying to hide or shy away. It’s unfortunate, because his songs have a raw and simple quality that often sound as if they would be best suited to a clean, crisp and honest recording. Indeed, while the amateurish and imprecise quality of the recording can be endearing, it also wears thin or unnecessarily detracts from otherwise pristine melodies.

McCombs pulls pages from any number of similar such artists – Elliott Smith, Damien Jurado, Neil Young – but emerges with a sound that is quite unique. McCombs’ voice is sometimes buried under reverb, sometimes overtaken by guitar, and sometimes just generally obscured. The strain that he seems to put on it can give it a pained honesty, but it can just as often give it a Noel Gallagher-like whine. It’s only when he sings at full volume and within his natural range that his voice becomes as effective as it should be. On “So Damn Pure,” McCombs opens with a fractured ascending vocal that stretches wide to carry his melodies. It’s slightly jarring, especially sung over slightly out-of-tune guitar. But when, during the chorus, he switches to a descending melody, he sounds more at ease, and more effective.

Not the Way is a rewarding listen, but not one that is likely to impress many on the first time around. Throughout the EP, the relatively simple distractions can sometimes overtake the quality of the songs enough that, in such a crowded genre, many may choose to pass quick and, unfortunately, negative judgment. But in the end it’s McCombs’ delicately simple and deceptively catchy songwriting that helps to distinguish him from the legions of other similar such artists. Not the Way isn’t immediately striking in any sense: Not in its mid-fi recording timbre, nor in McCombs’ slightly high-pitched voice, nor in his lazily strummed guitar. Yet his songs have a quality – a sincerity – about them that makes them as compelling as they are nondescript.

By Sam Hunt

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