Arriving two years after 2013's sprawling 22-track behemoth Big Wheel and Others, Californian indie bard Cass McCombs issues his first anthology, a similarly lengthy set of rarities called A Folk Set Apart. Culled from over a decade's worth of home and studio recordings, this is certainly the cabinet of curiosities you'd expect from the prolific singer/songwriter. Many of these tracks initially saw release as small-batch split singles and B-sides and they're arranged here in a very loose chronological order. The wry observations and dusty lo-fi tones of his 2003 debut are mirrored here by shambling castoffs from the same era, like the early single "I Cannot Lie" and "Oatmeal," a previously unreleased cut whose painfully harsh, scuzzy production borders on unlistenable. But McCombs' range has always been part of his appeal and the two tracks that follow are among the album's brightest highlights. The lush psych ballad "Twins," taken from the backside of a 2004 4AD single, is a total enchantment and 2009's "Minimum Wage," with its eerily cascading guitar part, is as crafty a pop song as you'll hear. "Bradley Manning," a darkly slinky ballad about transgender military whistleblower Chelsea Manning, is one of the most affecting tracks McCombs has produced. Throughout the second half of the album's 19 tracks, a display of McCombs' various guises plays out on the jangly power pop of "Evangeline," the old-time folk of "Three Men Sitting on a Hollow Log," and the woolly psychedelia of "Texas," an oddball bit of Western-inspired flimflam that features Phish's Mike Gordon, some dramatic group lyric recitation, and a bit of hardcore slide whistle improv. By the nature of its content and assemblage, there's not a lot of flow on A Folk Set Apart and some of the tracks might have best been left behind, but there is enough strong material here to attract new fans and provide longtime listeners a deeper look into McCombs' curious world.
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AllMusic Review by Timothy Monger