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CASS MCCOMBS Tip of the Sphere gets 8/10

Cass McCombs

Tip of the Sphere


Cass McCombs is a rarity – a modern songwriter without any particular tricks up his sleeve. Unlike the recently-reviewed Steve Gunn, he has no nifty guitar techniques on hand. Unlike, say, a Kurt Vile, his music and lyrics don’t strongly embody a particular attitude. And unlike a Ty Segall or Ryley Walker, his influences don’t extend broadly enough (the former) nor scope themselves narrowly enough (the latter) to be a calling card. Instead, he is that rare thing – a solid, dependable songsmith. His latest, Tip of the Sphere, offers up some choice cuts.

McCombs’ 2016 effort Mangy Love was a moody, melodic powerhouse of a record. This one, while not quite scaling the same highs, sees McCombs taking a more varied and playful approach. This is evident on opener I Followed the River South to What – McComb’s strained vocals are something immediately new. The song, like many here, has power through simplicity. A looping guitar riff and great vocal melody are enough to make this a winner. Next comes The Great Pixley Train Robbery, a no-frills classic rock track. The riff is so simple that McCombs dares to plays it straight, and the lyrics are a joy. Another win in a style outside McCombs’ wheelhouse.

McCombs’ bread and butter is moody folk-rock numbers carried by tastefully amplified guitar, and Estrella fulfils that role here. It’s a beautiful track, its melody an effortless earworm. Sleeping Volcanoes is the other soft rock cut here, a lovely song driven by its lurching bass and McComb’s breathy vocal. Sidewalk Bop After Suicide completes this moody trifecta, with one of the strongest guitar lines in McComb’s whole oeuvre.

The album quietens in the middle – an intentional respite, but the nap may be a tad overlong. Absentee is a loungy piano rock number that works well and Real Life is a bongo-driven little ditty that’s charmingly sleepy. However, penultimate track Tying Up Loose Ends needlessly re-treads this same atmosphere. Prayer for Another Day is another copycat, replacing bongos and sitars for pedal steel. By its end, it feels like you’ve overslept and woken up with a hangover on a beach somewhere. American Canyon Sutra introduces some pre-programmed beats, but unfortunately they’re only an excuse for some empty Lou Reed-esque spoken word passages.

Rounder, then, is a welcome closer, a faster-paced country folk rocker with the most guitar on the whole album. Its nine minutes breezes by, its melody slowly unwinding and giving way to a Grateful Dead type jam built on a badass keyboard vamp.

Another solid album by one of the most dependable guys in the game. Despite its slow parts, McCombs is too tasteful for any of these tracks to truly fall flat. On the flip side, you have some of the catchiest tracks of his career thus far. A choice pick this year to win over the ‘rock is dead’ crowd.


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