SONIC TUTORIAL: Cass McCombs

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For a lesson on what went right in the ‘70s prior to punk and hip-hop, you won’t find many LPs as successful at recapturing the diversity of those rich aural playgrounds as the songwriter’s new album Mangy Love, released via Anti-. View tour dates HERE. (- McCombs’ tour starts this week.)

BY JOHN SCHACHT

Let’s call Mangy Love, Cass McCombs’ eighth release, and his first for tastemaker label Anti-, an additional bit of welcome revisionist history. In certain quarters, the prevailing wisdom has been that the ’70s were a musical wasteland overseen by record labels too willing to indulge every rock star whim, sonic or otherwise. Punk and hip-hop, the storyline continued, rose up out of the gritty streets and saved us from a future of overcooked Foghat riffage, more Frampton double-live LPs, and symphonic rock excess. It was a reductive dramatization in the first place, but McCombs’ expert mining of the era for inspiration on these dozen cuts puts the lie to the mythology.

The singer/songwriter embraces a broad swatch of ’70s staples here, including Philly soul, Laurel Canyon twang, Norcal psychedelia, Steely Dan cool, blues rock and even a dash of reggae. McCombs is the constant through line, but the songs remind us that, for one, a lot of great music made it onto wax back then; they also remind us that McCombs has the kind of singular songwriting voice that can revive the sounds without turning them into nostalgia exercises. And, of course, those lyrics—McCombs pulls off his usual compelling quotidian-blend (Netflix, Cheez Whiz, and cortisone cream all show up) in substantive meditations on topics including race, the spell of womanhood (and the patriarchal stereotypes thereof), violence, home, truth-telling and spirituality.

The most striking addition to McCombs’ musical quiver are the tracks where he’s come under the spell of early ‘70s soul, blending elements of Curtis-era Mayfield, post-Motown Marvin Gaye and Gamble & Huff’s orchestrated Philly soul. “Laughter Is the Best Medicine” builds slinky guitar licks, Memphis-style horns and organ fills into an irresistible hook and groove, freeing  McCombs to riff on the notion of self-medicating through “tantric,” “cellular,” “outlaw” and “freaky” means (among a handful of other escapist adjectives). “Opposite House” tilts more Mayfield, with dreamy guitar riffs embedding in swooning strings and Angel Olsen’s backing vocals drifting above on the backs of the choruses. It’s a perfect setting for McCombs to question cultural preconceptions, chief among them that American life is comprised of binary choices only: “The opposite of white isn’t black, but rainbow blood/this house is too narrow, and made from endangered wood/Oh, why?”

The rich arrangements and sonic pleasures of those songs—veterans Rob Schnapf (Elliot Smith) and Dan Horne, take a bow—are a welcome mat for the rest of the LP’s style-hopping. With help from a couple of the Beachwood Sparks crew, McCombs turns in a pair of classic ’70s Laurel Canyon twang numbers, on “Medusa’s House” alternating a soul-rending falsetto—”help me to remember to forget/to forget what hasn’t happened yet”—with a slide guitar line that floats off like a hang glider over ocean cliffs. And at six minutes, “Low Flying Bird” belies its title and glides to even greater heights on tinkling piano and guitarist Blake Mills’ tasty runs.

Only slightly less compelling are a couple of wah-wah guitar and synth-accented tracks that bear a Becker/Fagen feel (“Switch” and “In a Chinese Alley”), and lead single, “Run Sister Run.” The latter is a cantering, syncopated state-of-womanhood dialog complete with Tonto-era synth burbles. The song never builds beyond its repetitive titular chorus, but with McCombs calling into question patriarchal norms from the current supreme court back to biblical times, the repetition serves a thematic purpose.

That cut works, but if there’s a minor beef with McCombs, it’s that the prolific word-play occasionally comes at the expense of developing some songs less fully than others. Few writers, after all, can pull off lines like “What Fresno tweeker’s ashtray you crawl from under?” (“Rancid Girl”) alongside cutting comments like, “I saw him in the cold street, lying dead/oh, please tell me, you academics/how do you wake up from a non-dream?” (“Bum Bum Bum”). But both tracks are little more than extended riff-scaffolding for McCombs’ meditations. The former, in particular, is a droning blues-rock stomper that never goes anywhere and is a conspicuous—and frankly Foghatian —sonic outlier.

McCombs isn’t the first talented lyricist to pound a chord sequence or guitar riff into the ground (looking at you, early Dylan), and he won’t be the last. But since his songs tend to skirt easy hooks in the first place in their search for richer sonic tableaus—”no more cliché songs,” he sings on “Cry”—the droning riffs and repeated mantras can leave one longing for the resolution of a cathartic hook over the course of a whole LP. But for a primer in what went right in the ‘70s prior to punk and hip-hop, you won’t find many LPs as successful at recapturing the diversity of those rich sonic playgrounds as Mangy Love.

Photo credit: Rachael Pony Cassells. McCombs kicks off an extensive North American tour on Sept. 13. Go to his official website for a list of all the dates.

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  1. Pingback: Cass McCombs’ Journey to the Past | Nothing Adventurous Please

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