Cass McCombs – Wit’s End

January 01, 1970



On paper, Cass McCombs’ music shouldn’t work. Composed of the same
processional tempos, weak-chinned hooks and laconic vocals, McCombs’ songs may
be the absolute anti-thesis of pop. And yet… if you fall under their spell,
those elements alter and refract to reveal new depths and dimensions. The pace turns
cinematic, a lovers’ stroll through rural evening twilight or a lonely pub-crawl
through rainy streets; rich textures of keys and gently strummed guitars
nullify the absence of obvious hooks and belie the sparse instrumentation; the
voice turns out to be a spot-on vehicle for the dry wit and probing
observations that, as McCombs sings on “Memory’s Stain,” read like confessions
“in the form a question.”


At least that’s been the case with previous releases, particularly
2009’s notable high point,
Catacombs. But for Wit’s End, McCombs’ fifth full-length,
the California-based musician has turned to a darker and moodier palette which
too often falls into the traps risked by his approach. Tracks like the maudlin
“Saturday Song” and interminable “Buried Alive” (which is no metaphor, it
appears) inch by to such a sleepy degree that no amount narrative wit or instrumental
textures can rescue them. “Pleasant Shadow Song” has a pleasing jazz trio-feel
in its intro (largely built on contrabass), but veers off into the stilted
chamber-pop feel of dull ‘60s psychedelic folk. 
“Lonely Doll,” too, begins promisingly with a graceful
celeste-and-organ-wash waltz , but each observation in the narrative is
followed by the title mantra, an effect that quickly wears thin.


Still, there are moments here where McCombs’ particular (and peculiar)
style transcends. Opener “County Line” is a pretty slice of Rhodes-inflected twang
that sounds like it wafted out of Laurel
County on an ocean
breeze. The prisoner-of-love lament “Hermit’s Cave” and “A Knock Upon the Door”
both benefit from slightly quickened waltz tempos, the latter fleshed out with
banjo, horns, bassoon and just enough clanking percussion to suggest Tom Waits
– if he sang like Burt Bacharach, that is. But at over nine minutes, “Knock”
overstays its welcome, and, unfortunately, that’s the case with too much of Wit’s End.


Line” “Hermit’s Cave” BY

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