Release Date: Nov 8, 2011
Record label: Domino
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock
This is prolific American singer-songwriter Cass McCombs getting things done. His second album this year, after the emotionally marooned and stark Wit's End, Humor Risk is a livelier affair and its venturesome aesthetic wanders. Fuzzy alt-rock and breezy Americana tracks rub elbows with dire blues and Laurel Canyon folk. McCombs keeps the energy high throughout—the absence of which was evident on Wit's End.
Borrowing liberally from both the Velvet Underground and the Bible, Humor Risk is San Francisco-based songwriter Cass McCombs's sixth album and his second this year. (The quieter, more challenging Wit's End came out in April.) Though he used songs from the same recording sessions for both, Humor Risk is quite a different collection, accessible and verbose by McCombs's standards. It's also a terrifically fun ride, rhythmically speaking, especially on fuzzy opener Love Thine Enemy and jangly earworm The Same Thing.
It’s easy to say that so many singer-songwriters are introspective and write painfully honest lyrics, but sometimes an easy explanation is all that is needed. Cass McCombs’ latest album Humor Risk, falls into that category and almost perfectly exemplifies it, but it also manages to stretch what is expected of him. Like on his previous efforts, McCombs employs a series of thorough lyrics that are explored through his own voice doubling up on harmonies.
Say it quickly, eliding the r's that cap the end of the first word and the beginning of the second, and the title of Cass McCombs' second full-length this year becomes Humoresque-- a genre of Romantic-period classical music that favored lyrical, mood-based expressions intended to be funny. As a title, Humor Risk functions as a sort of riddle, one where the answer comes quickly but you still feel silly for not getting it earlier. McCombs probably prefers it that way.
Cass McCombs’ best song to date, “You Saved My Life,” has a music video that’s a perfect metaphor for McCombs’ point of view as a writer. In the video, McCombs wanders haphazardly through a Chicago street festival. The camera trails behind him as he winds through the crowd, never showing his face until the end of the song. He’s walking the opposite way of the festivalgoers, and instead of blithely pushing his way through, either finds roundabout ways to dodge them, or slips through mostly unnoticed.
Considering that Cass McCombs’ two albums released this year – April’s Wit’s End and, his latest, Humor Risk – are both comedy-related puns, you’d expect his songs to be funny, or at least cheery. But it might be that the real joke is the incongruity between McCombs’ winky album titles and the beguiling bleakness of the albums themselves. On Wit’s End, McCombs established himself as a worthy successor to dreary balladeers like Leonard Cohen and Elliott Smith.
A new Cass McCombs record is exciting in itself, but two full-lengths in a year should render the man’s growing legion of fans punch-drunk. Always intimate and unflinching, McCombs’ latest set of dark, poignant stories comes only nine months after Wit’s End, an album that, like its predecessors, had few flaws. From an assembly line standpoint alone, it looks like McCombs is firing on all cylinders in 2011.
Nomadic lo-fi indie rock malcontent Cass McCombs' sixth album (and second of 2011) begins with the couplet "Love thine enemy/But hate the lack of sincerity," a notion that acts as the foundation for the eight cuts on the hypnotic but illuminating Humor Risk. The aforementioned "Love Thine Enemy" is just one of three slow-burn rockers on the record that bring to mind Kurt Vile fronting the Church; the other two, "The Same Thing" and "Robin Egg Blue," are prettier, but no less dissatisfied. It's a sound and style that work well with McCombs' obvious pop sensibilities, which tend to manifest themselves most successfully when the volume's turned up.
For such a downcast songwriter, Cass McCombs constantly seeks ways to extend his reach as far as possible. Constantly being dismissed as one who derives sadistic pleasure of his own troubles, it seems as if that fictional personification is his greatest amusement. And the more that image is overblown to mythical status, the more reactive he gets – McCombs even went as far as devising a viral parody of himself, in which a sneering journalist blurts a series of made-up assessments such as “the Lee Hazlewood of Atwater Village” and “the Jack Parsons of bubblegum rock” to feed into his own ego.
Cass McCombs took some heat back in April with the release of his fourth full-length album, Wit’s End, with many accusing the Dylanesque troubadour of reveling in darkness and despair a little too freely. Of course, said critics leveled this at the very man who, in 2007, told the San Francisco Chronicle that his epitaph would read “Home at Last,” so it’s likely that the chorus telling McCombs to lighten up missed the joke entirely. Much like similarly initialed author Cormac McCarthy, McCombs’s draw has always been the inherent humor and artistry of the forlorn, the macabre, and the morbid.
Cass McCombs is known as a bit of a nomad, traipsing across both country and myriad eras of music to create his contemplative, narrative records. Earlier this year, Wit’s End and its lethargic, deliberate style played like a dirge, an homage to the darkest places a man can know. While McCombs quips that “pain and love are the same thing” on the aptly titled “The Same Thing” – the standout track here on Humor Risk, his second LP of 2011 - it’s made quite apparent that Wit’s End and Humor Risk are most certainly not the same thing.
Cass McCombs has built a strange reputation for himself. That is, he doesn’t really have one, save for the one built on his music alone. There is no (functioning) Cass McCombs Twitter feed, no McCombs-helmed Facebook account, no hefty paper trail of interviews. McCombs is sort of a J.D. Salinger ….
An unwritten rule among singer-songwriters is that one can only make a single truly confessional album in your career before it becomes indulgent and gratuitous. Similarly, you can only really make one album of bleak fatalism and existential woe before it too begins to bore listeners. Cass McCombs' last album WIT'S END, released earlier this year, saw him in the role of the comic gravedigger, exploring surreal desperation and existential woe with his slow and mournful songs, yet with the familiar gallows humour that has been with him since he began his career in 2002.
One of the American Gothic greats reveals his second LP of 2011. Martin Aston 2011 Cass McCombs’ worldview can be nailed by his pithy response to being asked what he’d like on his tombstone: "Home at last." The comment, worthy of Tony Hancock or Spike Milligan (who, when asked the same question, chose "I told you I was ill!") has even more tragi-comic effect when you know McCombs is a bona-fide nomad, living in cars, on couches and at campsites across various US states. Pathos has always his calling card, with the emphasis on tragedy, despite the title Humor Risk.