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Album Review: Cass McCombs – Humor Risk [Domino]

Nobody is telling Cass McCombs that he should pursue a career in stand-up comedy. One listen to anything off his last couple records will tell you that the guy sounds clinically depressed. He could use a little lightening up. The irony is that some of our best comedians are severely depressed individuals. They use humor as a coping and defense mechanism, an escape from their otherwise dark lives, be it an abusive parent or navigating schoolyard politics. If somebody makes you laugh you’re less inclined to want to attack them verbally or physically. There’s also a sense of escapism in comedy, because the time spent performing makes you feel validated and appreciated. Watch the very darkly funny TV show “Louie” and you’ll get a great idea of how there’s depth and morbidity behind so much of what we laugh at. Cass McCombs is by no means music’s answer to Louis C.K., but some of his songs are intended to have undercurrents of comedy to them in spite of their pitch black outlook. Even by titling his album “WIT’S END” earlier this year the intention was not to evoke frustration, as it fits into the common phrase “I’m at my wit’s end”. He meant it more in a literal sense, as in the end of wit. Naturally, there was nothing funny about it (or so it would seem). A mere few months later however, McCombs is arguably in a different mood. As a companion piece to that, he’s now putting out his second long player of 2011, this one titled “Humor Risk”. It’s by no means a barrel of laughs, but if you can comprehend a whole lot of subtle witticisms, there are a fair number of moments on this album that will make you smile.

“Love Thine Enemy” is “Humor Risk”‘s opening track, and it examines the titular Biblical sentiment from a realist’s standpoint. “Love thine enemy but hate the lack of sincerity,” McCombs intones. Hopefully you’re able to grasp the funny part of that line, showing off how we may do what we’re told in spite of a strong distaste for it. Elsewhere McCombs has a little fun as part of a rather dark tale involving a drug smuggling operation run through the postal service on “Mystery Mail”. After seeing police descend on his house as he was returning home, the main character goes on the run only to have “the smirk is wiped from my smile/I was arrested for hopping a turnstile”. Upon being sent to prison, he contacts his cross-country drug smuggling partner Daniel, who has also been caught. “Daniel was indeed in the lion’s den/not the only lion killer in a California state pen,” McCombs amusingly intones, very much comparing his fate to that of the Biblical saint. He brings that reference back around again minutes later after his friend is killed in prison, singing, “Daniel was a good guy but a saint he ain’t”. Perhaps the most weirdly amusing track on the record though is “Meet Me at the Mannequin Gallery”, in which the main character seeks to get a mannequin made in his image, and is told a philosophical story by the gallery secretary intoning that not everybody has the distinctive features required to make a good mannequin. It’s a very WTF topic to spend a song on, but it does make for a great demonstration of how not every song needs to be an all-out pity party.

One of the kindest things you could say about “WIT’S END” was how thematically sound it was. That record may have been dark and depressing and slow, but the tone very much matched up and held steady from start to finish. “Humor Risk” runs more of the stylistic gamut. The balance between more uptempo numbers and somber folk songs works well enough here, even when the lyrics don’t always match up. “The Same Thing” is a sunnier acoustic melody, but it examines the dichotomy between love and pain, arguing that such differences are essentially nonexistent. Meanwhile the nearly 8 minutes of “Mystery Mail” is markedly upbeat rock and roll for a song that’s all about drugs, prison and death. Then again, those same topics and rocking melodies worked wonders for Johnny Cash. When you reach a slice of heavy depression like “To Every Man His Chimera”, it may feel like it belongs on the last record, but McCombs’s completely over-the-top vocal performance provides a sly wink against the uber-serious grain.

The grand point of course is that while a number of these new songs aren’t the epitome of lighthearted humor, even some of the more depressing moments are punctuated with energy and playfulness that makes them much more instantly likable. In that way this record also serves as a nice counterpoint to “WIT’S END”, though they’re not complete opposites of one another. This is the easier record to digest, actually perhaps the most normal and commercially viable McCombs has ever gotten over his six previous records. Yet the pleasantries and morbid rib ticklers also vary enough to make them seem like a piecemeal collection rather than a cohesive whole. The songs on “Humor Risk” were recorded in a number of locations around the country, part of the same sessions that yielded “WIT’S END”. This is far better than a b-sides or outtakes collection and none of these songs miss their mark by much, but there’s no real anchor holding the whole thing together. It’s freeing while simultaneously a little disappointing and difficult to engage with given McCombs’s past material. Hopefully next time he can get the balance just right. If he needs some help with that, perhaps he should call Morrissey. I hear that guy has a regular stand-up gig at the morgue.

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Album Review: Cass McCombs – Wit’s End [Domino]

By all accounts, Cass McCombs is not a very happy person. If the music you make directly relates to your own mental state, then depression appears to be a prominent part of McCombs’s life. Not everybody is happy all the time, nor does it make logical sense for them to be, but some people find it tough to even force a smile even on the nicest of days. It’s probably a big reason why the use of anti-depression meds are sharply on the rise, particularly in recent years. Despite this, living in a state of consistent melancholy can prove to be beneficial for many creative types, spurning them to make emotionally significant pieces of art that strike a nerve with the masses. Elliott Smith is one of the most prominent purveyors of sad sack music, and his acoustic ballads continue to draw in new fans every year despite his unfortunate death in 2003. McCombs bears a lot of similarities to Smith from a thematic perspective, along with your Nick Drakes and your Leonard Cohens, exploring the darker recesses of the mind with melodies that are simple but lyrics that are not. He scored big with 2009’s “Catacombs”, a record that stripped away most of the arrangements of his past records in favor of a much more direct approach. At that time though, his lyrics suggested at least some modicum of happiness and romanticism. Songs like “Dreams Come True Girl” and the waltzy “You Saved My Life” were heartfelt and warm, finding a comfort zone for him after three decent but not overwhelmingly great records. Now he’s back with his fifth album “Wit’s End”, and while the instrumental template remains the same, emotionally it’s as the title itself describes.

The opening track and first single on “Wit’s End” is “County Line”, a song that essentially flips the love-stricken vibe of “Catacombs” on its head. Instead of being about falling in love or being in love, it’s about the frustration of loving someone and not receiving love in return. Another, more literal way of interpreting the lyrics is to say it’s a tragic song about a town that has succumbed to the wrong kind of element, be it drug addiction (as shown in the song’s video) or urbanization or crime in general. Whatever the intention, the song isn’t lighthearted or positive in any way, even if there’s just a touch of warmth that might as well be left over from the last album. It’s almost enough to say that “The Lonely Doll”‘s title speaks for itself, but what you can’t grasp is just how deceptively innocent the melody sounds. There’s a delicately struck xylophone that adds an almost child-like wonder to the song, almost as if to soundtrack a little girl playing in her sun-soaked room with her Barbie. Precious, yes, but there’s also sadness and tears among the lyrics about being alone and not having anyone in your life to genuinely count on. The pain of loneliness appears to be the overarching theme of the album itself, to the point where McCombs has openly stated as much in interviews. Though there is a prevailing darkness and depression across the record, one of the better and more fascinating things “Wit’s End” does is examine the concept rather than wallow in it. Doing so doesn’t exactly make this a cheerier affair, but it does separate it from the plethora of other, more similarly-minded releases.

One of the most engaging moments on the album comes courtesy of album centerpiece “Memory Stain”. Starting as a rather minimal piano ballad, as it plods with an almost classical flair over the course of 7+ minutes there’s a wealth of other instruments that slowly weave themselves into the song’s fabric. The clarinet is particularly effective, but a light dose of harpsichord and some castanets do a lot towards truly evoking the sadness of those memories you wish you could erase but like a bad clothing stain just can’t. The oddball percussion on “Hermit’s Cave”, with the snare drum striking loudly at unexpected times helps to keep the listener on their toes as it otherwise simply waltzes along with piano and acoustic guitar as professional dance partners. Album closer “A Knock Upon the Door” is similarly paced, like watching a white-sheeted ghost bob and weave across the moonlit dancefloor of an abandoned mansion. Across more than 9 minutes a litany of instruments come together like some sort of ramshackle symphony that includes a couple of woodwinds (a baroque recorder known as a chalumeau being one of them), an acoustic guitar and a banjo, along with some unconventional percussion in the form of metal lightly tapping upon metal. The eerie feeling it nails down is one that had only crept through the rest of the record until that point. After so many songs about loneliness, this haunting closer is the final push, appearing to imply that the hope of company or companionship may remain unfulfilled and the only things left willing to spend time with us are the spirits of those we have lost. It is the end of the classic film “Citizen Kane”, where the immensely wealthy Charles Foster Kane wanders through his empty mansion alone – a man with more money than he knew what to do with, but no friends or family left to share it with. What good is anything in life if you’re just going to keep it to yourself? In that regard, “Wit’s End” also teaches us a lesson about people, relationships and selfishness. But that meaning is only there if you want it to be, because in those moments of true desolation where you just wish there was somebody to talk to, this album can be your companion during your dark period. As with many things in life however, it’s no replacement for a real life human being.

Cass McCombs – The Lonely Doll

Cass McCombs – County Line

Buy “Wit’s End” from Amazon

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