BY MIKE SHANLEY
Cass McCombs could be the missing link between Howe Gelb and Bill Callahan. It seems that way while foraging through the double-disc Big Wheel and Others, the second part of the title accounting for 21 other tracks. His wizened whisper (sounding like it gained its knowledge through the consumption of too many glasses the night before) recalls Gelb. The occasional high lonesome guitar that yowls in the background puts McCombs on the same highway that the Giant Sand man might have traversed sometime over the past two decades. The dryness of his delivery, coupled with subtle wit and ability to set up a story with just a few images, recalls Callahan. Many of the songs stick with a steady riff that with little variation, which also has a Smog-like quality to it. In most cases, nothing gets repetitive either.
Big Wheel contains some cinematic nods that shape the album’s impact. It features three excerpts from Sean, a 1969 film/interview with a four-year old that filmmaker Ralph Arlyck met in San Francisco. McCombs gives us all the controversial parts, beginning the album with the kid’s inability to name the days of the week and his casual admission to smoking pot. In a later fragment, he dismisses violence against police with a lighthearted, “Too bad.” (McCombs’ music was used in Following Sean, Arlyck’s 2005 film which caught up with the title character.) These excerpts don’t necessarily connect to the music, but they do add some forward momentum to what follows them, especially if you don’t know “Sean”’s back story.
The late actress Karen Black, who appeared on McCombs’ 2009 album Catacombs, sings the folky sweet “Brighter” on disc two, following McCombs’ version on disc one. She also does a spoken intro to another song, speaking so softly it’s easy to miss her. Both performances come off as subtle but effective tributes to the memory of Black, who died in 2013, and add to the overall narrative of the album.
McCombs frequently chops off syllables at the start of a line, which makes the lyric sheet mandatory to achieve the full impact. But it should be examined anyway to full appreciate the vivid quality of his lyrics. His mood stays at a slow burn for most of the album, but the band goes from subtle acoustics to full-blown Crazy Horse style guitars, with some free saxophone shrieks added for extra drama. And aside from the nine-minute rambling of “Everything Has to Be Just-so,” (coming at the end of the first disc, making it easy to skip), McCombs pulls off the rare feat of a double-disc that never runs short on inspiration or steam.
DOWNLOAD: “Joe Murder,” “Home On the Range.”