cass-mccombs-0309.jpg

A Catacomb Is A Dusty, Barren Graveyard

By Caspar Salmon | Music | July 22, 2009 | Comments ()

By Caspar Salmon | Music | July 22, 2009 |


cass-mccombs-0309.jpg

catacombs.jpgCass McCombs: Catacombs
[Domino Records]

Dear god, I hate this album. Wait a second, that's not quite strong enough. How about: I hate this album and everything it stands for. That's more like it. I feel I could still do with getting my message across a tiny bit more forcefully though. OK, let's go with: I hate this album and everything it stands for, and wish misfortune on all who like it. Yeah, that should cover it.

I originally elected to review this record because I'd liked McCombs's Dropping The Writ from 2007, and having read some good reviews of this new release before listening to it, I was even eager to have a listen. What a fool was I.

It's not that it's a bad album - it's not. It's not at all bad. It's just not at all good, either. It's not anything. Words that crop up in the notes I have taken on each song include: pretty; competent; mild; decent; polite; efficient; plodding; OK. Consulting my notes once more, I find a single, capitalized sentence that comes after these comments on each particular song, and which reads, "CHRIST ALMIGHTY, IT'S SO FUCKING BORING!" That's how I prepare for an article - notes on the songs, and a one-sentence summary of the album as a whole.

Reviews of the album have observed how McCombs has changed his style and register, and indeed these songs do feel - I suppose - a touch more weighty than his previous oeuvre. But with weighty comes leaden, comes clunky, comes bloated. The first song on the record, the really perfectly nice "Dreams-Come-True Girl" gives the lie to this, and is by far the best thing on the record: it is performed in a folky register reminiscent of CSN, with a few calypso licks of guitar and some good crashes of drums, plus a doomy guest turn by Karen Black. The melody is fine, and if it all goes too long (which it does), you don't mind too much because it was well-executed enough. It's the most ambitious song here, too, as the patterns of the melody weave in and out of each other and out of the duet vocals.

So, that's the first and best song out of the way, and you'll notice I'm hardly in raptures. And there are still ten out of the eleven to go. Of these, only two are under four minutes long, and six are over five minutes long - which, when I tell you that there isn't a memorable melody on the record - means that there's an awful lot of mid-tempo jamming going on here. Thus "Prima Donna," a love song: again in a slow rhythm, it has some competent guitar and a flat melody, and a bit of polite brass to close the song out. "Harmonia" is, likewise, professionally done: in the vein of Ryan Adams or Richmond Fontaine, it has a brisker acoustic strum than most songs on the album, and a punchier beat, and an OK pedal-steel breakdown in the middle section. But I listened to it for the third time barely five minutes ago and can't remember the tune.

There are some bad bits to counterbalance the average. The leadenness I alluded to comes in the form of the lyrics: the whole record is overwritten (like the song 'Don't Vote', with its hilariously overstated politics) and more earnest than a Belle & Sebastian convention, and all songs contain too many words per line. His intonations are often wrong, too: in "The Executioner's Song," we hear him "put bread on the ta-ble" and "Jonesy Boy" finds him "eavesdrop-ping on the competi-tion". The former song has a very plangent melody, and the latter is a decent little waltz with some nice cymbals.

What I can't fracking stand about this record is its relentless averageness: the ho-hum observations and the tidy arrangements, the forgettable melodies, the predictably weedy voice and ultra-usual standard guitar-playing. Perhaps some people will like this - and, as I say, a pox on their children and children's children - and I suppose it is OK. You know, it's fine. But I want the music I love to kiss me and dance with me, and make me feel alive and angry and randy and sad; I want it to surprise me and thrill me. This album makes me feel nothing at all. Nothing. I've made the case many times for professionalism in music (often while defending Fleet Foxes, or Gillian Welch, or some such). I reject a lot of the punk aesthetic, most of the time, because I believe in virtuosity, in style and in elegance in music. But I reject this sort of workmanlike effort for what I consider to be its cowardice and its lack of soul. Please - because I want us to be friends - steer clear of this album.

Oh, and you know how in paragraph 2, just there, I said that I'd liked McCombs's previous album? I went back and listened to it just now, and it turns out I don't like that, either.

Caspar likes books, music and films, and would never be described as "enigmatic." Read more about him at his blog, Straight Outta Crouch End.


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