Cass McCombs: A Folk Set Apart: Rarities, B-Sides & Space Junk, ETC.
This sturdy collection of rarities provides a glimpse behind the curtain of McCombs’ prolific career.
Somewhere towards the end of the Beatles' film, A Hard Day’s Night, the boys are scattered all over the city. Ringo's at the police station; John's wandered off to find him; management is pissed. It's tense and hilarious, but because they are the Beatles, the value of all this action is not just comedic. It seems to offer a rare view into what makes the band who they are. Cass McCombs’s latest release, A Folk Set Apart, offers an analogous, if non-fictional, glimpse behind the curtain. The album is a career-spanning collection of rarities, B-sides, and “space junk”, three-fourths of which were previously released, however in small quantities -- 7” B-sides, tour 7”s, and experimental splits. The result is about as un-precious as John Lennon in a bubble bath, albeit with slightly fewer puns.
A Folk Set Apart portrays McCombs hard at work developing his oddball voice in the world of songwriting. The first few songs, beginning in the era of “A” (2003) and “Catacombs” (2009) have the feel of bold first drafts, revealing peripheral, unrealized interests McCombs had along the path towards creating those classics. But not all of these tracks are necessarily rejects; some are just overflow. Some of the best songs (“An Other”, “If You Loved Me Before”) were recorded separately from already long-playing albums -- like the 22-song epic, Big Wheel And Others (2013) -- and could just as easily have been included. They are a testament to how good McCombs has become at getting great recordings of seemingly everything he brings to the table, which is a lot. (In 2011, two years before Big Wheel, he released two LPs, Wit’s End and Humor Risk, in the same year.)
I listened to A Folk Set Apart a lot in the car. Rather than living in a single world as his records typically do, here was a Cass McCombs record that reveals an artist in transit. It changed fast and fiercely from one studio, one continent, one group of hard-working musicians to another. There are many compelling subplots to the record, like McCombs' developing relationship with producer Ariel Rechtshaid. Their collaboration yielded McCombs' iconic hushed sound from Wit’s End, and Catacombs. The Catacombs scraps, scattered throughout the release, are some the most compelling tracks: “Catacombs Cow Wow Boogie”, “Minimum Wage”, “Traffic of Souls”.
But the best parts of A Folk Set Apart are the evocative suggestions of Cass McCombs records that could have been. The highlights:
Cass McCombs Going Full-Dead: “Twins”, the original gem on the record, was recorded in London in 2004. It's got the heavy, defined rhythm section of Humor Risk and the Lennon tremolo of Catacombs, but the essence of the track is one of tuneful, occult Americana a la Grateful Dead's Wake of the Flood.
Cass McCombs Doing Cali-Scuzz Pop: The third track, “Oatmeal” is a dirty industrial rock song with a pop-punk chorus that McCombs chants his way though. The entire left pan field of the song is static noise with the occasional weird sound (like one that kinda sounds like a duck quacking).
Cass McCombs Up Close and Personal: “If You Loved Me Before” was recorded with Big Wheel producer Chet JR White in San Francisco and put out on a White Magic split. The arrangement is dry (without effects) and up front. But it's also full of captivating bass and synth playing. “Old As Angry”, a dry, folk-punky number, fits neatly in this category as well.
While A Folk Set Apart is not really a proper record, it certainly ends like one. “The State Will Take Care of Me”, the quiet wonder of a B-Side to McCombs’ classic, “County Line”, is a perfect closing-time-at-the-saloon tune with a walking bassline. The progression, though not exactly simple, has a clear and memorable logic to it. One by one, the lyrics people the world of the song with exactly the right feelings. And just like the stellar closing performance on A Hard Day’s Night, we’re reminded of how in-control McCombs really is, in the end. While A Folk Set Apart doesn’t represent his best work, it still makes sense in his canon. The alternate imagination he’s offered fans is yet another sturdy exercise in self disassembly and songcraft, which Cass McCombs can’t help but nail.