Release Date: Dec 18, 2015
Record label: Domino
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Those of you who already know and love Cass McCombs know exactly why A Folk Set Apart is an important collection; go buy it, or stream it, whatever. For those who don’t, welcome to the magical world of Cass. It’s usually catchy and always bewildering. In the great tradition of cult artists, Cass McCombs has never been less popular than he was the previous year, which has given his craft considerable room in which to evolve.
Anyone who’s marvelled at McCombs’ 2013 Big Wheel And Others, will know the sound is hard to pigeonhole. The album veered from smooth jazz pastiche to Thin Lizzy covers to heartfelt pop collaborations. Similarly, his “alternate” history in the 10 years running up to that masterwork captured here is just as unfettered by the constrictions of genre, fashion or even logical song structure.
One should know by now not to take Cass McCombs' album titles at face value, as they tend to be double entendres. A Folk Set Apart isn't really a folk album, at least not until two-thirds through. It is, however (as its subtitle more or less spells out) a collection of rarities, B-sides and oddities, spanning 2003 until last year, encompassing a wide and disparate array of collaborations with on the surface unlikely-sounding folks including Phish's Mike Gordon (on highly experimental six-and-a-half-minute-long "Texas") and Deerhoof's Chris Cohen (on hooky "Poet's Day" and "An Other").
Somewhere towards the end of the Beatles’ film, A Hard Day’s Night, the boys are scattered all over the city. Ringo’s at the police station; John’s wandered off to find him; management is pissed. It’s tense and hilarious, but because they are the Beatles, the value of all this action is not just comedic. It seems to offer a rare view into what makes the band who they are.
This overdue compilation collects obscurities from Cass McCombs' unruly songbook. It's a motley patchwork, but one that never fails to fascinate, with a tracklist that skips from White Light/White Heat-style rave-ups to Beatles-esque grandeur to modern protest music. While there's a critical tendency to link McCombs to the current generation's crop of mellow troubadours, in truth, he's a more disruptive presence, with an old-fashioned knack for narrative and zero interest in sustaining an easygoing mood.
Arriving two years after 2013's sprawling 22-track behemoth Big Wheel and Others, Californian indie bard Cass McCombs issues his first anthology, a similarly lengthy set of rarities called A Folk Set Apart. Culled from over a decade's worth of home and studio recordings, this is certainly the cabinet of curiosities you'd expect from the prolific singer/songwriter. Many of these tracks initially saw release as small-batch split singles and B-sides and they're arranged here in a very loose chronological order.
A friend once told me a story about the singer-songwriter Cass McCombs that I've always liked. One night, my friend was at a party in the Bay Area when McCombs showed up with a guest. It was a real punk-rock party. (My friend remembers overhearing someone insist that what people didn't understand about the American Revolution was that the American Revolution was still going on.) My friend was sitting on the porch when McCombs and his guest came out to leave.
The idea of music as rare is increasingly difficult to fathom in the age of YouTube. And yet, in the functional absence of vinyl singles, certain artists still seem to put out tour-only, limited-edition split singles with other bands. No spring chicken, itinerant guy-with-guitar Cass McCombs has had a while in which to amass these offcuts and collaborations, five of which are previously unreleased; the other 14, which cover an 11-year period, are just hard to get hold of.
As an effortless, classically West Coast-schooled songwriter, Cass McCombs is pretty difficult to fault. Songs like “County Line” and “Dreams Come True Girl” are built upon foundations of the kind of timeless warmth to which so many Martin-strumming troubadours aspire yet so often miss. With this in mind, in many ways, a collection of rough cuts and B-sides seems to make perfect sense.
The first words of this scattered, turbulent, engrossing collection are significant. "I fancy myself a poet today," Cass McCombs sings on 'I Cannot Lie'. He has long had a certain preoccupation with poetry, and anyone who has followed his artistic trajectory since his 2003 debut A will have noticed his lyrical experimenting with imagery, narrative and his oblique form of confession.
Covering rare, obscure material released by Cass McCombs between 2003 and 2014, A Folk Set Apart is an essential curio documenting the singular American songwriter. An outlier as likely to collaborate with Mike Gordon of Phish (on the strange, theatrical Texas) as with Chris Cohen of Deerhoof (on the witty fuzz pop confection Poet's Day), McCombs is an artist you root for because his daring always pays off. He has no particular muse, and so his songs traverse the rock vein, snaking their way to and from various traditions.
Cass McCombs released ‘I Cannot Lie’ on seven-inch vinyl in 2003; on the sleeve was a close-up photograph of a bare foot stood on dusty ground. The big toenail was yellowing. The 38-year-old Californian has made seven albums since – this 19-track compilation of rarities and unreleased tracks is his eighth – but that gnarled foot is still a decent representation of him and his music.