Cass McCombs

[16 September 2008]

By Sara Hayes

Disappointment is a part of life; it’s an unavoidable side effect that’s bound to happen from time to time. Sometimes even your favorite musicians—the ones you hold up on a pedestal—are going to momentarily stumble. When the musician in question is the extremely talented Cass McCombs, one knows that the fall can’t (and won’t) be long lived. He has given fans three amazingly good albums over the years; the newest one, Dropping the Writ, was released in October 2007. He’s known and appreciated for his flair for the dramatic, as well as his intelligent songwriting. McCombs has a knack for creating little pop gems—shards of dark humor wrapped in shiny melodies with hooks that stay with the listener long after the song has finished. 

Opening for Beach House in Philadelphia along with local darling Tickley Feather, McCombs’ set was a cool spot in a night that was filled with hazy, swirling sounds and general good vibes—especially when compared with the quirky charm of Tickley Feather and the warm beauty of the headlining band. Beginning with an extended surf rock instrumental, McCombs and his band led us through a set that was mostly unrecognizable. He may have been testing out new material, or he may have even treated the crowd to an entire set of obscure cover songs. With no indication from the man himself, it was extremely hard to tell (even after furiously scribbling snippets of lyrics down to Google later.) The band brought back the Dick Dale surf rock jam halfway through the set, and while it was interesting to hear, I couldn’t help but wish that they’d inserted a song from his extensive catalog instead. It’s not too much of a stretch for a fan to want to hear songs from the album the artist is technically touring to support, right?

It’s not to say that there weren’t bright spots, however. “Not the Way”, the title track from the EP released in 2002, was languid and hypnotic with a fluid melody. McCombs’ vocals often come across like a strange mix of honey and concrete – heavy, yet flowing with the song at the same time. The evening’s first real moment of energy came with “Lionkiller”, the opening track on McCombs’ latest album; all rolling bass line and circular melody, the song bounced along on frenetic guitars and pounding drums. The same can be said for the only other identifiable track of the evening—“Subtraction”, found on 2005’s PREfection.

Generally speaking, McCombs’ songs are simply constructed, but they have a twist to them—either musically or lyrically—that elevate them into something unique. Sadly, it seemed to be obscured this evening. Since the majority of the songs all moved at the same glacial pace, the entire set seemed as if it were one continuous song with no real delineation between them. A song ended, we clapped, and a new one began that seemed to be the sequel to the last—almost as if ending each song was just a small break for the trio to catch their breath. There was very little movement from the band—fixed in place, it almost felt like the music just happened to come out of the instruments with very little active participation required. Mix that with the dark room, swirling purple lights, and Johnny Brenda’s smoke machine, and the atmosphere oddly reminded me at points of a school dance—stately, sleepy, and a little awkward.  In fact, someone else in the audience was feeling similarly, as he loudly proclaimed to the quiet crowd at one point, “Tonight is slowly, slowly kickass!”

You know what? I totally agree, sir. The night was hard to define, as it was promising, underwhelming, and frustrating all at the same time. Was it good? Yes, but it felt like a bit of a tease. I’m still holding out hope for Cass McCombs, though; perhaps it was a bad night, or maybe he just wanted to experiment—or it could be that he just wanted to try out a different persona/approach. No matter what the case may be, his albums deserve to be heard. Hopefully, he’ll come back to Philadelphia and want to play more from them—and if he does, I’ll be there in a heartbeat.

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