Big Wheel And Others
Cass McCombs (Domino LP, 14 October, 2013)
Reviewed by James Oldham.
Cass McCombs might have deliberately built a life on elusiveness, but the greatest mystery about him isn’t so much the man himself (although he is an enigma), but why his music hasn’t gained wider recognition. Over the past decade, this songwriter from Concord, California has drifted into focus as music’s most consistently enigmatic and beguiling cult artists, crafting a series of consistently oblique, emotionally complex records that have been by turns beautiful and frequently devastating. Musically, they initially echoed other outsider cause celebres – Felt, The Go-Betweens and The Smiths – but recently they’ve settled into a more strung-out, country-soul feel (McCombs’ favourite artist is Hank Williams). They’ve all been fantastic. And by and large they’ve all been ignored.
Partly this is McCombs’ own fault. In a culture of information overload, he’s the exception, shunning publicity and covering his tracks wherever he goes. He really doesn’t seem to care about their success of failure. In the past, he insisted if journalists wanted to talk to him they had to write him a letter. His record label once hired a private detective to get press photos of him. He doesn’t appear in his own videos preferring to use found images of skateboarding or people shooting up. For a short time, he referred to himself simply as Scorpio, a reference to his astrological sign.
For all the feints and secrecy though, the music itself is so obviously wonderful, so deeply moving that for McCombs’ converts each new album is traditionally greeted as the one that will bring him to a wider audience. His seventh album – Big Wheel And Others – is no exception. It’s his greatest yet. At over an hour and half in length and spread over 22 tracks, it has the feel of a significant statement. A rippling cascade of intense light and dark, it’s a sprawling, nocturnal soul record full of beauty, curiosity and McCombs’ customary sharp-as-blades insight. In a way, it’s a tying together of all the strands of his previous records – a kind of ultimate Cass McCombs’ primer.
That means there are moments of luminous, crystalline melody – the most immediate songs echoing the Anglophile chime of McCombs’ wonderful early records. Brighter, featured here twice once with McCombs’ voice and once with the recently-departed actress Karen Black singing (that version perhaps the better of the two is online now if you want to hear it), is the best of these – a typically sublime flash of seemingly effortless songwriting purity – although Morning Star with its great first line (“Leave your husband and come with me”) runs it close.
Elsewhere, the mood is significantly darker, reflecting McCombs’ customary immersion in the shadows. Drugs are threaded through many of the songs (the ambiguity of Dealing, the straight narrative of a dealer in Joe Murder), questions about existence abound (“I just wish I knew what the soul was for,” he laments on Name Written In Water) and throughout there’s an ever present feeling of loss and regret. Weirdly, that’s probably best exemplified by his drivingly intense cover of Thin Lizzy’s Honesty Is No Excuse.
Musically, the backdrop to this soul-searching exploration owes a little to Dr John (check out the gris-gris vibes of Everything Has To Be Just So), something to New Orleans (the midnight-black jazzy ambience of Burning Of The Temple) and a lot to McCombs’ deep knowledge of country. The effect is a kind of rich, churning terrain, full of unexpected diversions and sudden dips in the ground. It’s hard to keep a steady footing.
Like all of McCombs’ best work, it’s stimulating and engaging throughout. It’s also the kind of record that you can sink into for weeks without feeling the need to touch on anything else. What it establishes once again is that McCombs is one of the great singer-songwriters of the day. Perhaps one of the great singer-songwriters full stop. If you haven’t already, now is definitely the time to check him out.