Album Review: Cass McCombs – Catacombs [Domino]
Cass McCombs is an elusive character. A lot of people will recognise his name, perhaps they will have heard his previous albums. Few however, will be able to give you any information about the man himself. He exists on the fringes of the mainstream on purpose. He constantly tours, whether playing music or not, rarely settling in one place for long. His Myspace is a wasteland, his website is a series of unrelated and slightly disturbing photos of random revelers and he shies away from interviews as he reckons they are “counter-productive… Why do artists have to vouch for their actions?” (‘Mystery Man’, Vice Magazine).
If this means that the music is allowed to exist without ludicrously exaggerated anecdotes and borderline pornographic press exposure, then fair enough I say.
There is a difference between elusive and interesting though and McCombs has always struggled to fully convey his feelings in the music alone. In fact, press interviews and PR campaigns aside, he still seems to be uncomfortable revealing much of himself in his chosen medium.
‘Catacombs’, like the man in question, does nothing to demand your attention. The songs average about 4 minutes, with many breaking the 5 minute mark, the vocals drone and the arrangements and instrumentation vary little between tracks. It can make the listener feel like the sleepy night watchman, trying to keep his eyes open in case he should miss something. It is almost soporific and many reviews may simply dismiss it as dull, but there are some good tunes, lurking in the background, struggling to make their presence known.
Having waded through the mire of the first two tracks, ‘You Saved My Life’ is indeed a welcome lifeline. A slightly sparser arrangement allows the melodious instrumentation to stand out — the slide guitar, airy organ and a simple, waltzing drum beat are combined tenderly, but will do little to dispel any Conor Oberst comparisons. Things finally get exciting on ‘Lionkiller Got Married’ as conversational lyrics meld over a jerking, melodic march and a delightful sense of underlying bitterness quietly binds everything together. Finally, ‘My Sister My Spouse’, with its dreamy vocal hook, deserves an honourable mention, as do ‘Harmonia’ and ‘The Executioner’s Song’; an accomplished ode to McComb’s profession.
Despite these worthy exceptions, ‘Catacombs’ is, for the most part, quite a hard listen. Given the attention it needs, the album can reveal a few worthwhile gems, but otherwise it seems like listener and record are like ships passing in the night, neither particularly concerned with the other.
Written for 4or The Record