Cass McCombs is a lovely person. He is small in stature and possessed of a quiet, soothing voice and a friendly demeanor. My boyfriend and I ran into him in a West Village crosswalk outside of the Bill Callahan gig, Cass was gracious and stopped to chat for a minute. I think he may have been surprised that we recognized him, and he was definitely surprised that we had already heard Catacombs, well before the release date. I assured him that I had it legally, that I was set to review it and was loving it. He cracked a smile.
The album opens with the first single, “Dreams-Come-True-Girl,” which showcases Karen Black (yes, that Karen Black) in all her vocalizing weirdness. McCombs’s sweet, sweet voice slips through her fingers and wraps itself around her husky, nearly drugged sultriness with a ’50s doo-wop-flecked guitar melody carrying the tune and a little bit of “Crocodile Rock” thrown in for good measure. The song is quirky and totally catchy at the same time, in that wicked way that McCombs seems to have with music.
There’s no gorgeously overblown grandeur like “She’s Still Suffering” from his debut, PREfection, and the word “dagnabbit” doesn’t creep in again (as used so well on Dropping the Writ’s “Petrified Forest” for the best placement of that particular vernacular word in a pop song), but Catacombs is coherent, affecting, and smile-inducing. Who else can work “See you next Tuesday in the English way” into a song and get away with it? Only “Lionkiller” Cass, it seems, though perhaps he meant the Scottish way, as they seem to like that particular term way more than the English, if Irvine Welsh’s writing is anything to go by.
Regardless, in the lodge-itself-in-your-brain goodness of “My Sister My Spouse” we do get a “Do-nothing, Roop-scoop, Mooch,” so McCombs still has an ear for language and roll-off-the-tongue singing. His voice coats the lyrics like thick warm caramel on this one. Though often obtuse and twisted, McCombs includes some straightforward lyrics, as well, with some political commentary to boot, on “Don’t Vote.” His self-referential sequel, “Lionkiller Got Married,” is another standout track, with its military and incessant beat moving forward and lyrics that tie back into earlier songs of his. Continuity is one of his in-jokes, apparently.
It’s hard to pigeonhole McCombs’s music, as he combines old-tymey sounds with folk and indie elements to come up with something singular. Each album sounds different, yet each is recognizably the work of McCombs, his voice always being the dead giveaway. Six minutes of hypnotic beauty, “Harmonia,” foregrounds his voice and pairs it with a shuffling beat, some pedal steel, and a thrumming bass line. The song has the ability to suck listeners down into the “pool of Jersey river water” and not let go until they’re spit out on the other side with McCombs, in that friendly world he’s found somehow. But he’ll always keep us guessing with his lyrics. For someone who would like to see the word “sincere” disappear, and wipe L.A. and New York off the map, and who’s mantra is “The more I kill, the more I love,” he is a big ball of contradictions in a tiny, lovely package. Is he a proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing? Or just a super nice guy with a penchant for lyrics that trip you up? Whatever McCombs is, his music is utterly listenable and arresting, and his lyrics beg at least a half smile or a knowing arched eyebrow. McCombsy, boy, oh give us a melody.