Release Date: Jul 7, 2009
Record label: Domino
Genre(s): Indie, Rock, Alternative
Cass McCombs is a lovely person. He is small in stature and possessed of a quiet, soothing voice and a friendly demeanor. My boyfriend and I ran into him in a West Village crosswalk outside of the Bill Callahan gig, Cass was gracious and stopped to chat for a minute. I think he may have been surprised that we recognized him, and he was definitely surprised that we had already heard Catacombs, well before the release date.
Cass McCombs works quietly. Over the course of three full-lengths and five years, McCombs has quickly slipped in and out of scenes, skipping from one major American city to the next like he owed stacks of cash in every one. He's played with folk, grafting bedroom pop flourishes to sonic skeletons just strong enough to support them. He swam through 1980s Brit jangle and deep chasms of reverb.
On the album he released previous to 2009's Catacombs, Baltimore singer/songwriter Cass McCombs began moving away from the reverb-heavy, lo-fi sound and busy arrangements of his first two records in favor of a more direct sound with cleaner production. Here, McCombs strips away the remaining traces of his early bedroom-crafted indie pop sound and aims for something simpler that takes the focus away from the sound of the record and places it firmly on the wordy, emotionally charged songs and McCombs' vocals. The vocals are always up to the task; McCombs has ditched the jittery yelping he sometimes used on Dropping the Writ and instead settles into a warm and intimate style that instantly draws the listener in closer.
I don’t think my housemate likes Cass McCombs very much, and I’m to blame. I have, over the last week or so, been playing You Saved My Life from Catacombs at night when I get in. I can’t help it, it’s the prefect late night track, and Catacombs is excellent late night music. I heard You Saved My Life when I saw the excellent video for it, directed by Eric Fensler.
On the pointedly titled Catacombs, the willfully enigmatic Cass McCombs further seals his status as one of the 21st century’s most gifted and under-appreciated singer-songwriters. By turns direct, circuitous, romantic and sly, Catacombs—like all past McCombs’ albums—is ultimately too strange to find much beyond a niche audience. But listening to it, one gets the feeling that if McCombs would just replace his often bizarre lyrical tropes with trite sentiments, his career could easily take a Ray LaMontagne-like turn.
With the committed obliqueness of his lyrics and the adult-contemporary burnish that shines through his Morrissey-centered musical religion, Concord, Calif.’s Cass McCombs is a grotesque hybrid of 19th-century dandy and ‘90s sitcom dad. He sings lines like, “Prima donna / Dodged a call from / The investor,” with a subtle – but real – sense of urgency that lacks any sense of earnestness. Earnestness is an important illusion to get away from in indie rock, where everyone wears plaid but nobody listens to “Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs.”.