Perhaps you read HSW's third annual "Midway Through the Year Awards" and thought, "Surely no albums can displace this stellar top five." It is my duty to inform you, then, that the list is already in danger of being obsolete, as a new album (one which was perhaps a distant blip on my radar, or not even visible at all) has invaded my earspace. The album is Catacombs by indie-crooner Cass McCombs. File it under "highly recommended"...as the post title indicates, it's a surefire album of the year contender.
My first run-in with McCombs came somewhat unwittingly in January of last year, right here in Charleston. He was on tour with Band of Horses, and his opening set wasn't exactly mindblowing. McCombs doesn't rage, nor does his music. It demands an appreciative ear, one receptive to subtleties and appreciative of minimalism. And BOH's home crowd wasn't exactly keen to remain hushed while the opener played his own brand of spacey indie-folk. He left stage without much fanfare if I recall, and then the Horses came out and tore through a brilliant set.
While I wasn't inspired to rush out and grab a McCombs record, my subconscious has conjured moments of his performance from time to time, so he made enough of an impression for me to perk up when his name appeared on blogs. Hence the reason I stumbled across his new record.
I first heard "You Saved My Life", the third track off Catacombs, via a video posted on Pitchfork or something. I was quite taken aback by the slow-burning beauty of the song, a delicate waltz with twinkling electric piano and streamers of pedal-steel texturing one of the more inspired 3/4-time compositions I've heard since Radiohead's "Nude" or Iron and Wine's "Flightless Bird, American Mouth."
If I had to make one umbrella description of the album, I'd say this: Cass McCombs made the album that I always wanted Ryan Adams to make. Had Ryan been less concerned with mimicking his idols and concentrated on shaping his own sound, I feel he could have crafted such a sincere, distinctive record. But even his best efforts are chock full of overt nods to the Stones, the Replacements, the Smiths, Gram Parsons, and the list goes on. And as of late, he's phoned in two records that mimic watered-down Grateful Dead or Neil Young.
Until Ryan can get his act together (if he ever can), Cass will fill the void nicely. The two actually have some commonalities: Both are stick-thin, shaggy-headed man-children; both have gifted singing voices that carry more emotion than they let it on initially. But Cass lacks that outward obnoxiousness and arrogance that turns so many off to Ryan's music.
Catacombs' strong point is its simplicity. "You Saved My Life" is by far the most produced and instrument-heavy track on the album. Most of the others play with the open air, and enlist some quirky drum and percussion accompaniment that almost seem like an afterthought. I think the songs are best distinguished by McCombs' airy croon, and some eye-raising/ear-snagging lyrics that essentially addict the listener, eliciting repeat spins. But somehow, there's still a faint summery luminescence that gives the album a kind of intimate warmth and charm, most present in the sleepy yet uplifting "Harmonia" and "Jonsey Boy".
Other standout tracks include the bizarrely-themed "My Sister My Spouse", which truly highlights McCombs' knack for crafting tricky vocal melodies and carrying them out with ease. A handful of songs, including folksy album closer "One Way to Go" and the slightly unnerving "Lionkiller Got Married", sound like White Album Beatles, a notion that isn't at all damaged by the fact that McCombs, vocally, could pass for John Lennon (minus the Liverpool.) A few others, most noticeably "Eavesdropping On the Competition", embrace early Red House Painters slowcore, for which McCombs' sleepy delivery is quite suitable.
Also in true RHPs fashion, McCombs doesn't shortchange you on song length. Only the closer clocks in under three minutes, and only two out of the eleven tracks make it under four minutes. Most are five or longer. But like any great album, it demands patience and attention to detail to truly flourish. I look forward to wearing out the grooves on this one, and delving into McCombs back catalog a bit. Meanwhile, here are the videos for two of the tracks..."You Saved My Life" and then trippy doo-wop opener "Dream Come True Girl"
You Saved My Life
Dream Come True Girl