With the release of his 2002 debut EP, Not the Way, Cass McCombs presented a humbly eclectic folk image, full of lazy odes to hard drugs and old lovers. The troubadour could have quite nearly become anyone, done anything, with such a generic musical palate. Somewhere between then and the release of his second full-length, Prefection, McCombs has fashioned himself an original, if inscrutable, blend of Smiths-pout and Leonard Cohen-surrealism. Unfortunately, this change has produced a messy amateurism. Much of Prefection treads a dangerous line between eye-rolling chicanery and brilliant buffoonery.
In fact, the only consistent thing in this sophomore outing is McCombs’ three-drinks-ahead tenor and his Blake-ian verse. Whether his mates are treading out Joy Division bass lines or Cure-lined synths, McCombs is sure to be pleading and moaning his way through head-scratchers like “De profundis; how I love to live this/ loose!/ De profundis; with my Donald Duck orange/ juice!,” or “Catherine de Medici lives/ Silverfish quilting testicle/ Despotic owl conducts the wolves.” It may be worth a giggle or a quote, but most of it’s just alienating.
Most of the blame, though, should be laid on the music. An inspiring bit of ’60s psychedelia or ’70s post-punk could have easily transported McCombs’s eccentricities above the cut-out bin. Instead, his crew pounds on half-baked fuzz-bass riffs on “Multiple Suns” or limp Hammond organ on “Subtraction.” And the most self-assured tracks are, unfortunately, the most transparent, as in the Morrissey love-letter “Sacred Heart.”
Much of Prefection reminds me of what it would be like to listen to my particularly pungent neighbor front a band of record-store owners as they play to a handful of singles staring at their beer-bellies. McCombs does a woefully bad job of presenting his idiosyncrasies as anything more than that. And without a worthy justification, he and his band’s quirky, synth-fueled space oddities leave me gasping for air.