By Andrew Hall | 14 August 2009
I encountered Cass McCombs last in 2005 when I saw him and a small backing band open for the Decemberists in Boise. I remember that his material consisted of slight folk songs, that one of them may have been about Philadelphia, and that someone standing near me was not fond of him singing about Philadelphia. At some point members of the Decemberists joined him for a song and then he was done. Between his exit from that stage and the release of Catacombs, I haven’t thought a great deal about him or his music; since the release of Catacombs, I’ve been thinking a fair amount more about him, since his folk must be less slight now than it must have been four years ago. These songs use their lengthy runtimes to unfold slowly, revealing points of entry rarely drawn out in music that seems so indulgent, and their arrangements often compensate for whatever’s lacking in McCombs’ own words.
McCombs’ productions here are consistently in the four to six minute range, and he has a clearly defined instrumental palette throughout, as most of these songs are built on acoustic guitar and percussion. Despite the general mid-temponess and myriad folk conventions, McCombs and drummer Orpheo McCord put emphasis on different rhythms and means of percussion; “You Saved My Life” is built off of bass/snare interplay before a waltzing piano comes in for the song’s chorus. There’s the loping wooden percussion in “The Executioner’s Song” and the quasi-bar rock of “Jonesy Boy.” For a record that initially sounds more than a little homogeneous, these songs, given a little time, begin to yield striking qualities. It’s the hushed electric guitar and propulsive bass line that opens “Don’t Vote,” the lurching rhythms of “Lionkiller Got Married,” and just how warm the drums sound on “Eavesdropping on the Competition,” amongst other intriguing details, that hold this record together.
Furthermore, there’s an optimism not immediately apparent in this material; despite how spare they can sound, these are inviting songs that tend to work far better than they have any right to. More than anything else, this is because McCombs delivers everything through very functional, if not striking, melodies; there’s little to say about them, but they’re enough to justify almost all of these songs. Lyrically, little stands out, and often songs are summarized by their titles, especially “Dreams-Come-True Girl” and “You Saved My Life.” “Dreams-Come-True” is a few fantastic melodies and a cameo from actress Karen Black that proves far more complementary than Tilda Swinton’s recent turn on Patrick Wolf’s The Bachelor (2009), and “You Saved My Life” is held together through its slow-burning chorus, complete with slight synthesizers and pedal steel. On “Don’t Vote” McCombs manages to deliver “Jaws are wagging: ‘The 1 or the 2?’ / eager to put John Hancock on the ‘who’s who’” without making me lunge for the forward button—this is an accomplishment in itself. And Catacombs never ends up suffering from the Fleet Foxes problem (in which the disconnect between words and melodies becomes so pronounced that it becomes a nuisance).
What’s left, then, is an album that’s overlong, but one that’s surprisingly easy to succumb to. Even if I still haven’t internalized it, I’ve repeatedly caught myself listening to Catacombs from start to finish yet still enjoying each song individually. McCombs has crafted a careful and often quite good record, one that mostly transcends the damning description of “pleasant.” Ideally, the next time he gets stuck playing Boise as someone’s opening act (which, it looks like, he’ll be doing again this coming fall), there’ll be more to say about it than “slight.” I’m fairly sure now of what I wasn’t four years ago: that McCombs deserves better than that.