Review: Cass McCombs - Big Wheel and Others

Cass McCombs' sprawling seventh record isn't the easiest listen, but it's often rewarding.
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Cass McCombs' sprawling seventh record isn't the easiest listen, but it's often rewarding.
CASS MCCOMBS BIG WHEEL

opinion byBENJI TAYLOR

There’s always been more than a touch of the medieval troubadour about Cass McCombs: preoccupied with the notion of god, of no fixed abode, and with a dislike of the press and the music industry in general, it often felt as if he’d been born in the wrong place and in the wrong time. And that was what made his music so absorbing and compelling – these were tunes and tales told from the vantage point of a mysterious drifter - from the dark brooding beauty of 2011’s Wit’s End to the rambling poetic brilliance of 2009’s Catacombs. The sense of otherworldliness that accompanied McCombs lent an edge of timelessness to his music that made his songs and the ideas they explored almost impossible to shake off.

McCombs’ compulsive need to write and his disdain for convention has characterized many of his releases – in 2011 he released two albums (Wit’s End and Humor Risk) and - with this sprawling double LP (twenty-two songs if you include the short spoken word interludes) - he’s effectively repeated the feat. His themes and ideas require a big canvas and bold brushwork, and with album number seven McCombs ably offers both.

Excluding the intro “Sean I”, the opening triple-whammy of “Big Wheel”, “Angel Blood” and “Morning Star” is as strong as anything that’s graced any of his albums. On the opener, McCombs’ uniquely expressive voice flows around the rolling country blues guitar riffs and conveys the overarching themes of the album: religious doubt (“small wheel run by faith, big wheel run by grace”), identity (“what does it mean it mean to be a man, how you gonna tell me who I am?”), and looming societal discord (“now there’s peace in the valley, let freedom reign”). The sublime “Angel Blood” is a mesmerizing slice of gentle folk-balladry, while “Morning Star” brims with delicate acoustic fretwork and a vocal from McCombs that’s heavy with yearning.

The album contains many of the tropes of traditional Americana: trucks and diesel, forests and ranges, soaring eagles; and it’s dense with religious imagery, though often detailed from an atheistic perspective. On the lyrically poignant “Morning Star” McCombs seemingly sees the morning star Lucifer as a redeemer of sorts – “morning star illuminate, free us from this world of hate…” He has always had a way with witty wordplay and humorous poetic lyricism, and it’s in abundance on Big Wheel and Others.

Instrumentally the album is often richer than the sparse arrangements that populated Catacombs - it’s dotted with string arrangements and the occasional smattering of jazzy sax. His voice is a constant highlight, veering from a contemplative middle-register to a soaring heart-stirring falsetto on the glorious “Brighter!” (another version of this track on the album features vocals from Karen Black).

There are issues though - it’s too long, and the trio of inane intermezzos featuring snippets of conversation with a young boy (taken from the 1970 Ralph Arlyck documentary Sean) are unnecessary – the themes of the album are evident, and there’s no need to none-too-subtly telegraph them in this way. It’s also erratic – lurching from genre to genre, from folk to blues to rock, throwing an instrumental at you one minute (“It Means A Lot To Know You Care”), and a Thin Lizzy cover at you the next (“Honesty Is No Excuse”).

Some songs should have succumbed to post-production attention and have been axed completely, thereby preventing this record from fracturing under the weight of its own ambition. The dull meandering jazz-infused “The Burning Of The Temple, 2012” and the aimlessly plodding “Everything Has To Be Just So” add little, sonically or thematically, to the tapestry of ideas on show here. The latter track in particular is clumsy and tiresome in its portrayal of racial stereotypes and sounds barely complete from a production perspective. Similarly, "Honesty Is No Excuse" sounds only half-finished. This is in stark contrast to the surprising “Satan Is My Toy” – a full-bodied bubbling rocker boasting funk-fueled guitar licks that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Stone Roses album.

What it really lacks then is quality control and what it requires is a good deal of patience but, despite the occasions when it falters, elsewhere it’s consistently good, and sporadically brilliant. And – though it’s overlong - at its best it’s still all too easy to surrender to. [B-]