Music

Cass McCombs: Catacombs

Cass McCombs' fourth full-length has its flaws -- and is better of for them.


Cass McCombs

Catacombs

Label: Domino
US Release Date: 2009-07-07
UK Release Date: 2009-06-01
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On the pointedly titled Catacombs, the willfully enigmatic Cass McCombs further seals his status as one of the 21st century's most gifted and under-appreciated singer-songwriters. By turns direct, circuitous, romantic and sly, Catacombs -- like all past McCombs' albums -- is ultimately too strange to find much beyond a niche audience. But listening to it, one gets the feeling that if McCombs would just replace his often bizarre lyrical tropes with trite sentiments, his career could easily take a Ray LaMontagne-like turn.

Melodically, McCombs can hold his own with the very best pop tunesmiths, several of whom he clearly emulates, including Paul McCartney and Paul Simon. In terms of narrative content, however, McCombs is in a weird class of his own. From the unfortunately named "Aids in Africa" from his debut full-length, A, to Catacombs' "The Executioner's Song" -- an achingly pretty ballad in which the titular character coos "I love my job" repeatedly -- McCombs keeps listeners at arm's length with lyrics that would be insufferable were they not couched in such beautiful sounds.

Catacombs gets bizarre right out of the gate. The opening track, "Dreams Come True Girl", is a dreamy, gorgeous little love song, but it's the coda that smacks you awake. In it, 70-year-old actress Karen Black (Nashville, Easy Rider) comes in with a boozy, age-gnarled croon, giving the otherwise light-as-air song a subtext that's just a touch creepy, in a Harold and Maude sort of way.

Sonically, the rest of Catacombs continues McCombs' departure -- which began on 2005's Dropping the Writ -- from the noisier, more varied sounds of McCombs' early recordings. McCombs' lithe tenor is often accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, while the drummer gets more than his money's worth from his egg shaker.

The finest songs on the album, though, are those with the most ambitious arrangements. Take "You Saved My Life", a statement of gratitude to a lover, in which McCombs gets closer than ever to unadulterated earnestness. Over gentle cymbal taps, a tinkling piano, and a softly crying steel guitar, McCombs sings, "Now I see that there's so much to lose / There's so much to lose, 'cause you saved my life". But even here, McCombs can't help but insert just a hint of quirk, singing the refrain with moving emotional abandon until reaching the words “you saved my”, which he intones in an almost silly, child-like voice. Whether you find such little tricks endearing or distracting will probably determine whether or not you'll enjoy McCombs's music in general.

In spite of his reluctance to remove the ironic distance between himself and his listener, McCombs shows plenty of signs of maturation as a songwriter on Catacombs. More than ever, he eschews the first-person for the second, and the arrangements are the most restrained of any McCombs recording yet. Indeed, the criticism most likely to be leveled at Catacombs is that it tends too often to veer into middle-of-the-road, adult-oriented radio territory. And sure, a cursory listen reveals the album to contain no shortage of innocuous Beatles-lite soft pop. But McCombs' mystique -- even if it is, as some suspect, a superficial product of his desire to be perceived as mysterious -- helps make these more than just pretty little pop songs. They're more like pop puzzles.

Catacombs is a flawed album, yes, but were it not for McCombs's willingness to take the risks that lead to those flaws, he probably would have made an album that even Ray LaMontagne fans would love. And nobody -- McCombs, I'm guessing, least of all -- wants that.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

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There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

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10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

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8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

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7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

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