Cass McCombs

Catacombs

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On the album he released previous to 2009's Catacombs, Baltimore singer/songwriter Cass McCombs began moving away from the reverb-heavy, lo-fi sound and busy arrangements of his first two records in favor of a more direct sound with cleaner production. Here, McCombs strips away the remaining traces of his early bedroom-crafted indie pop sound and aims for something simpler that takes the focus away from the sound of the record and places it firmly on the wordy, emotionally charged songs and McCombs' vocals. The vocals are always up to the task; McCombs has ditched the jittery yelping he sometimes used on Dropping the Writ and instead settles into a warm and intimate style that instantly draws the listener in closer. The songs are mostly strong, too; almost uniformly quiet and introspective, they create a mood that lingers throughout the album like a melancholy haze. Tracks like the yearning "Dreams Come True Girl" or the tender, epic "Harmonia" cast a quietly desperate spell; in much the same way American Music Club did, only with less sarcastic wit and more resigned sadness. Only the lightly skipping "Prima Donna" breaks the feeling and adds some much-needed sunshine. The problem with creating an album this uniformly midtempo and hushed is that by the end, the listener may be screaming for a song to show some spunk or to kick the tempo up past the "lope" setting. It doesn't happen here, and it's not really a big problem because the songs and mood are so cleverly established and sustained. The bigger issue is that a couple songs are overly wordy or hook-free ("Don't," "Lionkiller Got Married," and "My Sister, My Spouse"), and this is where the album could use some instrumental coloring or production tricks to add some much needed distraction. For the most part, though, the album is an enjoyable addition to McCombs' catalog and shows him growing as an artist. While some fans of his early work may be left behind, most people who enjoy witty songs with tender emotion behind them will be satisfied with Catacombs and happy with the direction he's headed.

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