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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Cass McCombs - Wit's End: B+

At thirty-three, I don’t think Cass McCombs should be sounding this old. The California singer/songwriter has been writing drowsy waltzes for almost a decade, now, but, on his newest album, you’d think Wit’s End was an implication of debilitation rather than insanity. A song like “County Line”, features a devious descending organ line. You would hope McCombs would take advantage of it to elevate his silent lament to a cathartic altitude, but McCombs lets the line be, the notes fading without context. While “County Line” is a good song regardless, its repeated anticlimaxes are indicative of Wit’s End’s defeatist ambition and how cumbersome it can be at times.

The arrangements of Wit’s End border on medieval. Mandolin and harpsichord abound and songs tend to unfold like parables. “A Knock Upon the Door”, the last song on the album, plays out with the humble theatrics of a Canterbury tale, making sure to add a funny knocking sound at the title’s repetition. It should be no surprise that the album’s dark undertones are accompanied with ominous lyrics, and McCombs delivers spectacularly at times. Most effective is “Buried Alive”, which somehow manages to romanticize embalming; McCombs singing “polyethylene reserve” like it’s a choice on the wine list. “A calf is easy to brand,” he warbles on “Memory Stain”, sounding strangely sadistic in his nasally monotone. I don’t know how I feel about McCombs’s sonic approach on Wit’s End, but his persona is one that he plays admittedly well.

The problem with Wit’s End, though, is that its songs can be construed as boring as opposed to just understated. I see it somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. On one hand, the dry repetition of songs like “The Lonely Doll” can get so tedious you may miss some of McCombs’s best lines. In “Memory Stain”, a shaker interrupts the song intermittently throughout its seven minutes as if to acknowledge that it needs to regain your attention. But on the other hand, there are some long songs on Wit’s End that breeze by with great aplomb. Although it’s over nine minutes long, “A Knock Upon the Door” simply sounds like McCombs telling a ten-minute story. All the tracks on Wit’s End are good for at least one modest hook. At the very least, the album’s mood remains consistent.

So Wit’s End isn’t for everyone, maybe not even for most. It’s a depressing album, and, unfortunately, it doesn’t always deliver on that communal uplift that has immortalized the best albums made in its style. At times, it feels like McCombs is building his songs on flimsy foundations, which is unfortunate because Wit’s End hints at work that can achieve what he only partly accomplishes. I would suggest Wit’s End for people who are already fans of Cass McCombs, but for those not already versed with his work, you could just give this a cursory listen and move on.


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