CASS McCOMBS: HUMOR RISK (2011)
1) Love Thine Enemy; 2) The Living Word; 3) The Same Thing; 4) To Every Man His Chimera; 5) Robin Egg Blue; 6) Mystery Mail; 7) Meet Me At The Mannequin Gallery; 8) Mariah.
McCombs' second album, in his own words, was "just punched out", and it certainly sounds like that. If the ultimate keywords for Wit's End were «slow, draggy, and atmospheric», then Humor Risk clearly tries to restore the balance with «upbeat, loud, and energetic». Unfortunately, that does not make it much of an improvement over its more pensive and serious older brother. It only makes it more obvious how annoying McCombs can get when he is not really trying.
Let us keep it clean and precise. Cass has always had and still has his way with words. You take a song like ʽLove Thine Enemyʼ and just look at the lyrics — and there are some sharp contrasts there, like "Every idiot thing you say speaks of pain and truth / Because of the beautiful way your tongue can seduce". He walks a nice thin line between the mystical sarcasm of Dylan and the heart-on-sleeve attitude of simplistic indie writers, provoking and challenging at least a little bit in almost every song. But his singing, so magical at times on A, has all but deteriorated to a monotonous murmur; and as for the music, the song has little going for it other than a distorted three-chord rock riff. Does that suffice to count for «enchantment»? Sorry, no.
Some people have compared his attitude on this tune to the classic sounds of The Velvet Underground — this is very, very silly, in my opinion, but since the comparison has been made, it makes sense to make use of it and remind everybody that on classic simple VU rockers, as monotonous as they could be, the atmosphere was generated by the total unity of purpose between all of the song's elements. You had a nasty guitar sound, a nasty vocalist, and some nasty lyrics that, taken together, generated Rebel Art like crazy. But in ʽLove Thine Enemyʼ, the primal power of the distorted riff is wasted — it does not really click in perfection with the lyrics or the vocals or the rest of the arrangement. It's just there because Cass likes to give us a bit of simplistic rock riffage from time to time, to establish a connection with the old punk spirit despite not having a punk spirit himself.
It gets worse, much worse on ʽMystery Mailʼ. At least ʽLove Thine Enemyʼ is short, but this other song, riding a half-century old chord sequence without any variety whatsoever, goes on for eight minutes. I don't know if the story about «Daniel» and his unfortunate experiments with drugs and the law is autobiographical, or allegorical, or culled from real or fictional sources, or is just some homage to a Springsteen or a Tom Petty ballad, and I certainly do not care to know: all I know is that the whole thing is mind-numbingly boring. (It also rips off its vocal intro and outro from Blondie's ʽThe Hardest Partʼ — bet that is a bit of exclusive trivia you won't find anywhere else in the world other than on Only Solitaire). Is this art? Is this entertainment? Is this meaningful self-expression? Is this a triumph of freedom, when you can just walk into the studio, record any tripe that comes into your head on the spur of the moment and release it publicly, knowing full well that, no matter what you do, out of 7 billion people on this planet, there's bound to be at least a couple hundred thousand who will fall for it?..
I will admit that ʽThe Same Thingʼ, ʽTo Every Man His Chimeraʼ, ʽMeet Me At The Mannequin Galleryʼ and the creaky lo-fi album closer ʽMariahʼ all have some pretty vocal moments. ʽThe Same Thingʼ has a Lennon-like aura to its echoey, double-tracked vocals, but I'm talking of one phrase here — one vocal phrase repeated over and over and over for six minutes (except for the bridge sections that are nowhere near as moody). ʽTo Every Manʼ has one lovely chord change that you will already hear around 0:40 during the instrumental introduction — to get them in the vocal version, you will have to endure about a minute of super-slow, super-sparse indie-bluesy lethargic playing for each one. (As a consolation bonus, you will be pleased to learn that "California makes me sick / Like trying with a rattlesnake your teeth to pick" — a bit of Latin poetry syntax here, but quite expressive imagery all the same). And ʽMariahʼ manages to turn this particular proper name into a seductive vocal hook, rhyming it with ʽdesireʼ, ʽthe fireʼ, ʽnever tiresʼ, ʽtake me higherʼ, and even ʽinside herʼ, but even this really pretty acoustic ballad is spoiled by the idiotic lo-fi production, burying it in white noise just because we somehow have to go on and simulate the lack of access to a normal studio environment.
As far as I'm concerned, this is not a case of a talented artist suddenly (or gradually) deprived of his talent by illness, dementia, or commercial pressure. This is a case of a talented person intentionally wasting his talent on adaptation to the stereotypical image of an «indie artist» — you know, one for whom «sincerity» and «telling it like it is, but from your own and nobody else's individual perspective» means everything, while everything else (original melody, fresh arrangement, musicality as such) means nothing. In other words, a case of crapola that deserves a very harsh thumbs down, and serves as a good example, I believe, of the overall unhealthy influence of «artistic expectations» on people who could do much, much better.