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Friday, March 24, 2017

Cass McCombs: Dropping The Writ


1) Lionkiller; 2) Pregnant Pause; 3) That's That; 4) Petrified Forest; 5) Morning Shadows; 6) Deseret; 7) Crick In My Neck; 8) Full Moon Or Infinity; 9) Windfall; 10) Wheel Of Fortune.

I do not think this was the right way to go. I loved A — it was essentially an album of mantras, and it hypnotized me to a point, depending on how well the singer was able to fine-tune his voice to find that one perfect pitch for the mantra in question. Now, by the time he gets around to his third album, Cass McCombs presents us with his first indisputable collection of pop hooks, and, unfortunately, that just does not work too well.

ʽLionkillerʼ opens the album with a couple of seconds reprising the annoying car siren at the end of ʽAll Your Dreamsʼ — implying, allegedly, that Dropping The Writ has to be taken as a direct sequel to PREfection, but this is not really the case. ʽLionkillerʼ itself is a three-chord grunge-folk rocker, with an endlessly spinning wash cycle that seems to promise some thunderous reso­lution, but never really does — and, what is even worse, McCombs himself is reduced to the role of a boring murmurer, spinning some figuratively autobiographical jumpin'-jack-flash-in-reverse-like tale about his safe middle class upbringing, but without even once making full use of his beautiful voice. Essentially, the song's ominous atmosphere is wasted.

As we proceed further, it becomes obvious that the age of mantras has passed, and that we have entered the age of art-pop instead. That would be okay if we had outstanding musicianship, ori­ginal and memorable melodic lines, or gorgeous vocal hooks — instead, we have tasteful musi­cianship, traditional melodic lines, and such timidly understated vocal hooks that it's almost like having no vocal hooks whatsoever. First time I sat through the record, I believe the melodies just managed to slip through my perception centers altogether; second time, I had my mind nets all polished and ready, but still ended up with slim pickings. I mean, something like ʽMorning Shadowsʼ is really nothing but dream-pop atmosphere: falsetto sweetness, soft guitar jangle, brushed percussion, light summer breeze that fades away as quickly as it comes. Pleasant, but definitely not the reason I'd endorsed Cass McCombs in his original artistic campaign.

Honestly, I do not think this album can seriously catch anybody's eye until the seventh song: ʽCrick In My Neckʼ is the first one to have a silly, but fun chorus, focusing on the protagonist's «body problems» preventing him from floating away in his imaginary psychedelic world. At the very least, this tune actually conforms to what we expect of a pop song — all the previous ones, while also pretending to be pop songs, do not. It helps that the song is propelled by a strong beat and plenty of Townshend-esque power chords, but it is the "brother, could you wait a sec? crick in my neck, crick in my neck!" climactic bit that makes all the difference.

From there on, the songwriting seems to take a turn for the better — ʽFull Moon Or Infinityʼ has an exciting contrast between low-key verses, falsetto choruses, and folksy acoustic picking with a troubled message; ʽWindfallʼ is a welcome return to ultra-slow waltzing tempos where Cass' vocal powers are finally laid out for all to see; and ʽWheel Of Fortuneʼ at least has sonic depth, with several layers of instrumental and vocal overdubs, to provide a good finale. I could not describe any of these songs as «outstanding» on any level, but at least they sound like composi­tions that care about surprising the listener, which is far more than I could say about the first half of the album, with all those telling titles like ʽPetrified Forestʼ (yes, much of that stuff really does sound petrified).

On the whole, Dropping The Writ is an even bigger disappointment than PREfection. Part of the blame, I guess, lies on the strange decision to de-individualize the vocals — there's so much echo, reverb, and other effects placed on them throughout the record, often quite gratuitously, that you almost get the impression of an artist intentionally sabotaging his greatest asset (like Eric Clapton renouncing the status of a guitar god or something like that). Obligatory kudos for trying to branch out, of course, but branching out at the expense of losing something precious without gaining anything is hardly a smart move.

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