Stalwart slave to indie and the experimental, Cass McCombs delivers exactly this in his new record, Tip of the Sphere, parts of which are expansive, whilst others, well, not so much.
Various influences are present, as we’ve come to expect from McCombs, now on his ninth album; with nods to 60s psychedelia, western swagger and interims of Grateful Dead references. The album is only a small stretch from his 2016 album Mangy Love, though melodic genius in its own right. It’s not groundbreaking and, yet, not quite commercial; it sits somewhere comfortably (perhaps too comfortably) in between. The track listing washes over you with, at times, untraceable structure, though he possesses an undoubted knack for creating a good song.
We can be pretty glad he’s not strayed too far from his heyday. I mean, we’re not in Bob Dylan Christmas album territory by any means. It’s accessible to most listeners, so in that respect, it’s fantastic; protocol American folk-indie, with a little bit of flourish. However, for those that saw Mangy Love as a point of progression, Tip of the Sphere is achingly similar (with added sitar).
This is particularly true for final tracks ‘Tying up Loose Ends’, ‘Sleeping Volcanoes’ (a sense of ennui, somewhat insightful and playfully wry) and ‘Rounder’- though shout out to the instrumental coda of ‘Rounder’, which is an incredible Frankenstein’s monster of genres. The riffs lull you in and out of a stream of consciousness, into a sense of security, to push you head first into the existential vocal lines, a theme carried over from the previous album. This being said, upon its release in 2016, Mangy Love gained a lot of interest and could be found in a few ‘end of year lists’, so it’s not really anything to be poo-pooed.
The album’s approach gives a nebbish nature a voice, albeit one which often sinks into a vacuum of guitar solos and instrumentals. It attempts to push boundaries in a tried and tested way, combining a despairing world view with a contemplative, relatively upbeat soundtrack. In the first track ‘I Followed the River South to What’ Cass invites you in: “I’ll show you what I mean / I’ll take you anywhere”. True to folk tradition, the track unfolds through parable. He shows us the inside of his mind, a realm with frivolous riffs and a serene, steady core. The indulgent riffs sprawl out into a succulent landscape which sets the scene for the album to follow.
‘The Great Pixley Train Robbery’ follows suit with a funky rebrand, a fable which the listener can envision Buster Keaton, who features in the video, as the protagonist. The track bursts into a trance of fat fuzz and vintage sound. Next track ‘Estrella’ is where the similarities to Mangy Love can be most obviously drawn.
‘Prayer for Another Day’ is smooth, riffy, and with a sprinkle of melancholy – still touching on fable, painting a picture of the day, the mood, the tone – now slightly more romantic, slightly more monotone and repetitive. It’s an insight into the personal life of the narrator, though, in this instance, with little take away.
‘Sleeping Volcanoes’ is an invitation for reflection that, with its easy going, bright composition and unjaded vocals, could potentially be overlooked, if the lyrics weren’t so disappointingly on-the-nose. Half the tracks merge into a stream of self indulgent innocuity (for instance on ‘Sidewalk Bop After Suicide’); not unbearable to listen to, it’s just that a larger appetite had been created and, personally, I remained unsatisfied.
‘American Canyon Sutra’ is the most experimental track on the album, though it’s debatable whether it lands. Stripped-back for emphasis on the morality of the lyrics, it’s a barefaced message about the pollution problem in the USA, and perhaps globally. Mass consumption, corruption, disenchantment; the classics. “Black as my soul is, don’t leave me here alone / Here to fall into the bottomless canyon of nightmares – an American Canyon where trucks and homes are bigger, cops are mostly white and they have a recycling centre, and a Walmart”.
I think it’s safe to say Tip of the Sphere won’t be getting the same praise his previous albums received; it’s hardly groundbreaking (not through a lack of effort). The usual chord of ‘facile melody with stand out lyricism’ misses the mark, however, its undemanding nature and McCombs’ gift for a rich guitar solo make it a good listen nonetheless.