Release Date: Aug 26, 2016
Record label: Epitaph
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
On the very first song on his very first record, Cass McCombs went to the hospital. There he received some troubling test results and found himself faced with an unanswerable question. “Is it dying that terrifies you,” he sang, in a gentle, boyish sigh that would earn him plenty of comparisons to Elliott Smith, “Or just being dead?” It was a heavy introduction, but, in its plainspoken intensity, it foretold the work to come.
Like the canonized folk-poet raconteurs that preceded him, Cass McCombs writes songs out of characters; not just about them, but out of them. His melodies seem to emanate from the bruised psyches of the eccentrics he follows, his soundscapes from the hermetic worlds they inhabit. Dylan, Costello, Warren Zevon, and Tom Waits may have first mastered this mode of darkly comic, character-centric songcraft, but, over the course of 14 years and nine full-length albums, McCombs has developed his own unique style of condensed pop-music portraiture.
Cass McCombs has been demonstrating the Talmudic songcraft ambition of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen for more than a decade, quietly accruing fans, including many of his indie peers. His latest shows a low-key master at work, and not in a bubble. "Bum Bum Bum" and "Run Sister Run" engage race and gender issues with a delivery part soapbox, part bar stool, part pillow talk.
Floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee, on his eighth album California singer-songwriter Cass McCombs cloaks his by turns provocative and intriguing lyrics in luxurious country-rock clothing. Run Sister Run skilfully skewers the misogyny of the US justice system, yet does so in a disarmingly upbeat, radio-friendly manner. The dreamlike Opposite House, meanwhile, finds McCombs woozily confused by unexpected changes to the geography of his home.
Mangy Love marks the eighth long-player for Cass McCombs, who, fans will be happy to hear, continues to hold form as a refreshing renegade on his game. The singer/songwriter takes on the messiness of life including timely sociopolitical topics, with grooving accompaniment that makes it go down breezily. Along the way, he dips into psychedelia, reggae, Baroque pop, funk, and more.
As a singer/songwriter, it's an achievement to be referred to as a shapeshifter: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and more recently Beck have all enjoyed, long, fruitful careers thanks to their ability to keep their material sounding fresh and their audience guessing. Cass McCombs has employed a similar strategy over his first seven LPs. He tackled tried-and-true indie rock on 2009's Catacombs, dark folk for 2011's Wit's End, and actual skiffle music as a member of the Skiffle Players, but besides cycling through musical phases over time, the Bay-area artist also maintains his shapeshifting tendencies within each album, trying out new styles on given songs even as the albums maintain a different macro-level sound.
Cass McCombs is shaking a big bottle full of bitter pills on his latest album, but they’re easy enough to swallow: the singer wraps his pessimism so deftly in beguiling musical arrangements that you hardly notice it at first. As diversions go, it’s a move worthy of Mary Poppins’ spoonful of sugar, though McCombs seems less inclined to provide loving structure to a dysfunctional family than to afflict them with unpleasant, if tuneful, truths over breakfast. So what’s he pessimistic about? Pretty much everything: race relations, gender relations, war, politics, socioeconomic inequality, general cultural malaise.
This is Cass McCombs’ eighth full-length. With that in mind, there should be a reasonably clear idea of what to expect by now. He’s generally made gentle, melodic indie folk his calling card, albeit with an increasingly deep thematic bent as the years have gone by. His last two full-lengths, especially - 2011’s ‘Humour Risk’ and 2013’s ‘Big Wheel and Others’ - have ploughed a complex lyrical furrow, with the latter of the two delving into two hundred years’ worth of Western American history and moulding an intricate narrative out of it.
Over eight studio albums, Cass McCombs has been accumulating admirers and plaudits. Now, having switched labels, he’s poised for the push to the big time. Well, sort of. Mangy Love sees McCombs park the Americana and alt-rock, and explore 80s-styled AOR, all sleekly melodic guitar lines (opener Bum Bum Bum has a spiralling guitar topline that’s hypnotically transcendent) and subdued moods.
There’s a story Cass McCombs has told about how in his older days, he would never sit for publicity shots. At a certain point, the 21st-century rambling man claims, his label hired a private investigator to follow him around, snapping an artist photo from a great distance instead. Self-mythologizing perhaps, but it parallels McCombs’ own songwriter eye, shadowing people milling about us otherwise left unobserved, sounding at a remove, yet zooming in and capturing intimate details.
Any long-term obsessives spooked by Cass McCombs’ lighter but admittedly brief detour with the Skiffle Players album earlier this year will be chuffed to know a heavier tone has returned on his eighth solo record. Now signed to ANTI-, the feel of Mangy Love is that of a musician cracking his knuckles and laying the foundations for a longer spell of productivity. All the usual traits are there, though many feel speculative.
The Upshot: For a primer in what went right in the ‘70s prior to punk and hip-hop, you won’t find many LPs as successful at recapturing the diversity of those rich sonic playgrounds as this album. View tour dates HERE. Let’s call Mangy Love, Cass McCombs’ eighth release, and his first for tastemaker label Anti-, an additional bit of welcome revisionist history.
It's been a rather emotional beginning of September for those who are wholly enraptured with Nick Cave's chilling Skeleton Tree. But if you've been looking for some music to decompress with, then the past month featured some rather great offerings. My top choice for the month goes to the singular ….
“No more cliché songs,” Cass McCombs sings on Cry, one of Mangy Love’s many standout tracks. “Nothing less than every ounce of your heart.” It’s a maxim he’s held himself to for a long time now, releasing nine albums in the past 12 years that showcase a rigorous approach to songwriting and a deep well of inspiration. “No gold for bards, no laurel enough to bushel into a bed,” he sings over an anthemic, ringing guitar riff that punctuates Cry’s low-key groove.
Nine albums in, Cass McCombs remains one of music’s great free spirits, continuing to blend sounds and draw from a host of genres at a point in his career when many equally prolific artists would be settling into an easy, comfortable niche. The resulting Mangy Love is an album that feels rich, fully realized, and delightfully eccentric. It’s the meatiest 12 track record you’ve ever heard.
Cass McCombs is walking down an alleyway and he finds a dead girl naked inside an icebox. He walks on, through black clouds of exhaust, past a dry cleaners and finds Brigid, who’s straddling a heater to keep warm. They drink green tea and contemplate evil before saying goodnight.That’s a summary of ‘In A Chinese Alley’, one of 12 songs on the cult Californian’s ninth album ‘Mangy Love’, a record that captivates like a Hollywood classic and takes your mind hostage like a favourite novel.