LIVE REVIEW: Cass McCombs @ Music Hall of Williamsburg


New York City and nomadic guitar-man and songwriter Cass McCombs may seem mutually exclusive, but in fact, he used to live here, sometime between stints in Concord, California (his hometown), Baltimore and San Francisco. Throughout a seven-album-long career, McCombs has never settled. To listen to his songs, you might imagine him passing through somewhere rural and wide open, maybe in the West: a travelling performer with a pickup truck, a guitar, and not much else. You might conjure up images of McCombs as one of the last of the Dylan-esque romantic nomads, who spill out the contents of their hearts in their songwriting but, in life, choose the company of the open road to that of people.

Last October, McCombs put out his beautiful–if extremely long–double album Big Wheel and Others. Most of the songs off that release carried with them McCombs’ signature cyclical guitar strumming, touched with world-weary loneliness but also, more memorably, a spacey hypnosis that always draws attention to the small movements that take place in mostly-still spaces. His songs sound the way it feels to watch a sluggish breeze flicker through dry grass along a highway where no cars come. It’s like watching a deer that doesn’t know it’s being watched. The songs tune you into their rhythms, and it comes as a surprise when the music stops, and though you haven’t felt like you’ve been on a journey, you’re far from where you started.

It’s weird that the image of Cass McCombs so strongly evokes so many different images, because on stage at the Music Hall of Williamsburg last Thursday evening, he barely said a word. McCombs–along with Jon Shaw on the bass and Dan “Buddy” on guitar, who flanked McCombs on the left and right and could have been his brothers, with matching wavy hair, rumpled button-downs, and longs of closed-eyed reverential concentration as they nodded along to the immortal groove–was silent but by no means unfriendly. At one point, he paused to smile into the microphone.

Rhythm, looped guitar lines, and narrative-heavy lyrics were the main ingredients of McCombs’ performance on Thursday, which consisted mainly of songs off the new album. There were some exceptions– “Lionkiller Got Married,” off 2009’s Catacombs album, was a crowd favorite for what seemed to be an audience of mostly long-standing fans, who seemed especially enthusiastic for older material, though they gamely whooped for songs off of Big Wheel, too.

McCombs’ light installation–a row of twinkling panels that spanned across the stage, silhouetting the musicians–adds so much character to his performances that it seems almost like a fifth band member. The Yellow Book Strangers, a pair of light designers, built the installation for a tour in 2011. Shadowed in the yellow glow, McCombs bobbed back and forth between his loop pedals and the microphone, showing the rhythms due diligence. He looked suspended between being in spotlight and being obscured from view. This is a natural space for McCombs–it’s been his sweet spot as a performer for years, and at this show, he seemed totally in his element. The lights twinkled behind him, resembling the Manhattan skyline and a starry country sky in equal measure.

Here’s “Brighter!” off the Big Wheel album. Cass McCombs performed this song at the show on Thursday, and it was a sweet, and uncharacteristically simple, highlight of the performance.

VIDEO REVIEW: Cass McCombs “Unearthed”

The contents of Cass McCombs‘ long and winding double album Big Wheel and Others fall into one of two categories. About half are capital-s Songs, with verses and choruses, beginnings, middles, and ends. The rest of the collection expands, with mesmerizing slowness, to fill less rigidly constructed boundaries. These are not tracks, they’re drive-by moments that feel like scenes instead of performances, as if their gently cycling vocals and accompanying acoustic guitar lines had always been going on, and snippets of it happened to be recorded and tossed together into a collection. “Unearthed” falls into the second category

The video for the song consists of just two images–a wintery mountain scene and a climber crouching on his stomach in the snow–and for much of the song the shots stay so still that they could easily be pictures instead of film. Like the song, the video focuses on the small changes that take place in a mostly-empty environment, drawing focus to little shifts like the soft billowing of a cloud or small changes in the mountaineer’s gaze up the mountain.

Cass McCombs will bring his stark brand of musical hypnosis to the Music Hall of Williamsburg tonight, with Endless Boogie. Check back for my coverage of the show, but don’t stop there–you can still grab your tickets by going here. Watch the video for “Unearthed” below!

Unearthed by Cass McCombs from Eric Fensler on Vimeo.

VIDEO OF THE WEEK: Cass McCombs “Big Wheel

Cass_courtesyCassMcCombsBack in October, enigmatic folk artist Cass McCombs released his seventh full-length, Big Wheel and Others, a double album that led us through hypnotic rhythm cycles and tangential, but beautiful, guitar passages, intimate if shadowed vocal lines, and lyrics that fit together like a Rubik’s cube—the meaning behind them was always there, but eluded direct visibility even when the text was at its most confessional. A meandering intricacy has always graced McCombs’ work.

Cass McCombs seems to belong to another era, one without modern video or recording technology, so it’s a little disorienting to realize that his songs have music videos. But so they do: the video for the (almost) title track of the new album, “Big Wheel,” premiered from Domino Records today courtesy of McCombs’ friend and collaborator Albert Herter, who shot the footage in New York, California, and China. “Big Wheel” opens with a foreboding, cyclical guitar line that speeds up at the pace of a rumbling freight train. In the video, these first bars are accompanied by a procession of slogans: large, all-capitol letter words like “JUSTICE,” “MASTER,” and “EVERYTHING” appear on the screen, over backdrops of a closeup of a chicken’s face, a lit-up building facade at night, or a basement door that’s opened when the song’s drums kick in. What follows is a busy psychedelic collage, montages intersperse with home video clips, with all the bleak grandness and obscurity of the song itself.

Images of cities, surreally collaged-together kaleidoscope imagery, and clips of talk show hosts with black ovals pasted over their faces aren’t what immediately comes to mind when you listen to Cass McCombs, whose music more closely embodies a grainy picture of solitary travels through America’s West. The cuts in this video are diverse—a grainily filmed dog coming towards the camera, a surreal, abstract, colorful backdrop with the word “WOMAN” written over it—and a lack of linear development makes the video seem a little unpredictable, even threatening.

The range of the collage is wide, and their apparently random sequence heightens the violence and surreality of the images, but this video is held together by a strange and distinct perspective. Many of the actions are filmed from the point of view of the viewer; in one recurring clip, a hand that appears to belong to the person holding the camera reaches out to open a door. The doctored visuals, the words that flash onto our field of vision as we watch the imagery unfold, puts us in the mindset of a personality that remains constant throughout the video. The only sense the chronology makes, by the end of the three and a half minute “Big Wheel,” is that established by the perspective from which these images are filmed. True to McCombs’ aesthetic, we’re not given an image of this video’s protagonist, but we’re given a detailed tour of all the scenery inside his head.

Watch the video for “Big Wheel” below, and learn more about Cass McCombs’ latest album, Big Wheel and Others, by going here!

ALBUM REVIEW: Cass McCombs “Big Wheel and Others”

Cass McCombs Big Wheel and Others hi-res cover HTM

In his decade-long career, Cass McCombs has produced seven full-length albums, all deeply interior and intricately crafted, and all known—to varying extents—as meandering, inaccessible folk music that mirrors the artist’s own nomadic lifestyle. Californian by birth, McCombs retains a distinctly West Coast-Americana vibe, but his wistful and unspecifically nostalgic songs conjure up a wandering life more than they evoke any one place. Big Wheel and Others matches older work in this respect, but is twice the length of any album McCombs has previously released.

Anything this hefty—it’s technically a double album, though there’s no noticeable break in continuity—will get you thinking about the passage of time, if only because of how long it takes to listen to it. Hypnotically repetitious sections in songs such as “Joe Murder,” “Brighter!” and “Satan Is My Toy” emerge out of long stretches of chilly, lonesome guitar passages. These extra moments of stretched-out music make Big Wheel spacious. This isn’t a euphemism for boring—although the listening experience is a commitment—at worst, it’s inscrutable. Like walking through a thick forest along a poorly-demarcated footpath, the album disorients and occasionally discourages. Then, unpredictably, trees clear and give way onto a view of some lake or mountainside (and then, kapow! A money shot, so spectacular and flabbergastingly beautiful that all the inconveniences of getting there seem niggling.) Both the Karen Black version of “Brighter!” and “Burning of the Temple, 2012” make for shimmering payoffs.

There are a few things about this album that I can only explain by imagining that McCombs intended to further prolong, and thus further heighten, these payoffs. I see no reason why three audio clips from the 1970 documentary Sean, about a four year old living in a hippie house in Haight-Ashbury, should make their way onto this album, for example. Wedged between gorgeous songs like “Name Written in Water” and “Dealing”, there are a couple of short instrumental tracks that feel comparatively pointless. McCombs collaborated heavily on this album—four or five people play on almost every track—and occasionally the influence seems to further cloud McCombs’ already complex vision for the album.

Unlike a traditonal double album, Big Wheel consists of a single, fatiguing spiral of songs, all leading somewhere increasingly interior and, at the same time, increasingly ambitous. Towards the end of the album, “Name Written In Water” waxes suddenly self-conscious: These lines are my last verse/They might well be remembered also as my first/And possibly even as my worst. The intimacy of this album is present but subtle, because any lyric that borders on confessional will certainly careen into obscure or far-flung within a verse or two, or may even grandly reference Hamlet (“What dreams may come, when shuffled off this mortal coil,/Must give us pause,” said the Danish Royal). If Big Wheel‘s pace drags at times, it also works a kind of magic: the inner ramblings translate to external ones, conjuring a journey that’s equal parts through the one you take through Old, Weird America, and the one that runs through your own head.

Listen to Cass McCombs, “There Can Only Be One”, via Soundcloud here:

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