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Cass McCombs - A

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Artist: Cass McCombs

Album: A

Label: Monitor

Review date: Aug. 4, 2003

Kid A

On his debut release, Not The Way, Brooklyn singer-songwriter Cass McCombs tip-toed around the charms of earnest low-fidelity and gentle repetition to produce a sincerity that approached, but certainly did not match that of his Will Oldham/Bill Callahan contemporaries and soundalikes. Not much time has passed since its release, but in whatever extra bit of care, precision, and soul McCombs dug out to use in making A pays off in spades. On this, his full-length debut, McCombs crafts delicately slow-going and touchingly innocent songs, their droned and simple melodies lulling the lyrics into a place where their apparent haziness is able to blossom into larger-scale and less-seriously witty interpretations. Clearly this was the intention of Not The Way as well, but where on that recording the combination of a grating mix and its generally drollness overshadowed the songs’ actual worth, here McCombs’ fine songwriting is presented with instrumentation and production that complement it nicely.

On A, McCombs has come into his own sound quite nicely, allowing his vocals to nestle gently behind his tingly clean electric guitar; think Clientele without the vocal reverb. His voice is suited quite well for the type of songs that he writes – powerful with shades of angst – but the high pitches about which his somewhat nasal vocals float and occasionally wail find refinement just before the point of irritation. On “What Isn’t Nature,” McCombs’ cry of “whoaaa” to lead into the chorus is innocently off-kilter, but trails off shortly before becoming a nuisance, fading out just in time to suggest an endearing timidity, rather than an Entrance-like arrogance.

In a relatively short amount of time, McCombs’ lyrics have improved with the same swiftness as his production, although the effectiveness of both go neatly hand-in-hand. McCombs’ two finest songs, “Aids in Africa” and “A Comedian is Someone Who Tells Jokes” arrive back-to-back. “Aids in Africa” finds McCombs opening with: “Aids in Africa / And cancer back home / The season of giving is now / A war is on / Lady a war is on / Aids in Africa.” It’s something that could easily sound juvenile or trite, but the ease and timidity with which McCombs howls out the lines lends them exactly the sincerity that is needed for them to be effectively compelling and perplexing, rather than merely confusingly annoying. Likewise, on “A Comedian is Someone Who Tells Jokes”, a slightly more morose, but equally tuneful song, McCombs opens with the equally fuzzily-sensed: “I spent my days / Shaking hands / Forgetting names / Recycled cans / A comedian.” His combination of subtly catchy tunes and an occasional repetition of the line “A comedian is someone who tells jokes” help to nudge McCombs closer toward the Malkmus school of the pleasantly confusing rather than that of the Drag City depressed poet – a musical archetype which, at first listen, would seem to be among McCombs’ chief influences (indeed, McCombs has toured as Will Oldham’s guitarist).

Repeated listening and proper saturation of McCombs’ lyrics finds a dark goofiness and not the gothic depression than his inflection and instrumentation might suggest. It’s an interesting direction for any singer-songwriter to take, and is especially refreshing when coming from one as young and raw as the generally underaged McCombs. Shades of indie rock moping still show up here and there (ie, the too sappy to be true whine of “Meet Me Here at Dawn”), but it’s the combination of McCombs’ apparent knack for melody combined with his understated smart-alecy tendencies that help make A the gem that it is.

By Sam Hunt

Other Reviews of Cass McCombs

Not the Way

Dropping the Writ


Wit’s End

Humor Risk

Read More

View all articles by Sam Hunt

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