CASS McCOMBS: CATACOMBS (2009)
1) Dreams-Come-True-Girl; 2) Prima Donna; 3) You Saved My Life; 4) Don't Vote; 5) The Executioner's Song; 6) Harmonia; 7) My Sister, My Spouse; 8) Lionkiller Got Married; 9) Eavesdropping On The Competition; 10) Jonesy Boy; 11) One Way To Go.
Okay, this may not be the worst pun on one's family name either, but the very fact that Cass now has to rely on puns to spark additional interest in his music is not a good sign. And, unfortunately, the decline continues. Some of the changes might seem auspicious: in contrast with the previous two records, Catacombs moves Cass away from straightforward «pop» or «rock» territory, where he never felt perfectly at home, and back to the original formula of A — meandering, potentially hypnotic singer-songwriting with charm and soul. The bad news, however, is that the magic that I felt so strongly on A is all but lacking on this release, and without the magic spark, everything that Cass does runs the risk of being deadly boring.
One reason behind this might be the musicianship: by now, Cass has a completely different backing band behind his back, and somehow, they don't seem capable of weaving a sonic tapestry that could effectively enhance and amplify McCombs' singing. Actually, they are not even invited to try, because the idea this time seems to be to keep it as stripped down as possible. Where ʽI Went To The Hospitalʼ perfectly introduced A with a dense mix of jangly guitar, omnipresent organ, and fussy percussion, ʽDreams-Come-True-Girlʼ is restricted to a choppy jazz-meets-early-Beatles rhythm pattern and siren-style background cooing from guest star Karen Black, while Cass himself delivers a pleasant, but unexceptional vocal serenade that is not melancholic enough to make you feel compassion and not sweet-tender enough to make you feel warm all over, ʽHere, There And Everywhereʼ style. Just a five-minute long slice of nicety without a sharp chorus, forgettable almost as soon as it over.
Alas, the same judgement applies to almost every other song here. The stripped-down approach to arrangements and the relaxed-nonchalant approach to vocal melodies results in a warm, lazy-day record that might, perhaps, click in some fried-brain-psychedelic manner on a particularly hot afternoon, but even then, only in a slumber-inducing way. The fact that he is back to his repetitive mantras alone is insufficient — stuff like ʽPrima Donnaʼ is basically just dissipated mumble-mumble over three repetitive acoustic chords. And you'd think that a song called ʽYou Saved My Lifeʼ should sound just a wee bit, well, livelier than this creepy-crawly snailish neo-country piece whose only memorable element is an awful adult-contemporary bassline that should have never crept out of the Eighties where it properly belongs.
Perhaps he thinks that, as a singer-songwriter, he may now be excused for writing lazy melodies with lazier arrangements because we should all be concentrating on the words? Well then, I have to say that I'd rather have those old enigmatic lines, open to all sorts of ambiguous interpretations, than stuff like ʽThe Executioner's Songʼ, a typical lyric from which goes "I'm a pretty lucky guy / I love you and I love my job" — and a typical melodic or vocal hook from which does not go at all. And these boring songs just get longer and longer: ʽHarmoniaʼ is, like, six minutes of boring acoustic strum and country slide guitars that rolls along with all the excitement of riding an aged burro through some interminable cotton field.
Tiny signs of life begin to appear towards the end: ʽMy Sister, My Spouseʼ, besides a somewhat controversial title, finally has Cass adopting a sharper, nastier vocal tone, for the first time reminding me of why I'd fallen for his spell in the first place — there's a sense of mysterious menace in the song, and since it is as sparsely arranged as everything else (just drums, acoustic guitar, and a few ghostly backing vocals), I have to conclude that, after all, it is not so much the fault of the musicians as it is the fault of Cass himself that the record on the whole sounds so lethargic. But then, once again, he decides to sound not like himself but rather like Leonard Cohen (ʽEavesdropping On The Competitionʼ) or, God knows why, like The Band (ʽJonesy Boyʼ), before turning into The Avett Brothers for a last goodbye (ʽOne Way To Goʼ). Why? God only knows. Perhaps somebody just hypnotized him and put him on autopilot for these sessions.
Thus, unfortunately, we observe a clear case of «losing it» — one or two decent tracks among a sea of throwaways that give no reason whatsoever for the recognition of the well-deserved autonomous existence of Cass McCombs, a creative artist in his own rights. (Writing a follow-up to ʽLionkillerʼ called ʽLionkiller Got Marriedʼ is not a reason, either — it's a fine pretext to remind you of a Cass McCombs predecessor from long ago and far away, called Buddy Holly, but in this case, it's hardly a flattering comparison, because Buddy Holly's songwriting was never as lazy as McCombs' is on this album). Of course, the PitchforkMedia reviewer wasted no time in calling this record McCombs' «best ever», but apparently, he was seduced by the directness and sincerity of the album — reportedly written as a tribute to Cass' wife — whereas I, on the contrary, am almost offended by these same qualities. See, a serenade is always a nice gesture in theory, but it shouldn't be a given that if you write a serenade to your wife, it should instantaneously bump you up a notch in the critical conscience. My position is firm and simple — Cass McCombs sucks as a lovey-dovey acoustic troubadour, and deserves a thumbs down for this shift.