Cass McCombs

Wit's End

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In several sometimes perplexing ways, Cass McCombs' fifth full-length outing, Wit's End, veers moderately but decisively away from the appealingly direct, rootsy indie folk of its predecessor, Catacombs. In its place is a stark, occasionally stifling collection of dark, literary, chamber folk, melodramatic piano balladry, and one sterling piece of country-pop classicism. Album-opener "County Line" is a quiet stunner: a mellow-grooving country-soul burner so achingly smooth you'd swear it was a turn-of-the-'70s chestnut from the L.A. soft rock scene -- a stray cut from the vaults of Asylum Records, perhaps, or maybe a particularly glossy tune by the Band -- complete with that iconic Fender Rhodes twinkle. (Its restrained melancholy and vintage-styled craftsmanship also call to mind Beck's Sea Change.) But it's hardly an accurate indication of what's to come, at least musically: although several songs feature a similar instrumental palette, and the moody, subdued tone persists throughout, nothing else here is nearly as warm or winningly melodic. Lyrically, "County Line"'s tale of loss and rueful homecoming (seemingly about a hometown transformed by new development, rather than a doomed romantic relationship, though it could be both) is just a taste of the darkness and desperation that, as the album's title hints at, pervade these eight songs. Elsewhere, we get the desolate, jilted lover of the maudlin "Saturday Song," the chilling "Buried Alive" (whose title is evidently not metaphorical), and the wracked "Hermit's Cave," which plays like a gloomier variation on the Beach Boys' "That's Not Me" with an added dose of mysticism. When McCombs' often heavily stylized, antiquarian verse is paired with a suitably intriguing arrangement (as on "Memory Stain," a forlorn piano waltz that gets some much-needed color and lift via accordion, bass clarinet, and a few well-placed castanets) or a decently forward-moving melody ("Buried Alive," which is both tender and almost delightfully macabre), the results can be effective, if not exactly inviting. On the other hand, no amount of celeste can save "The Lonely Doll," an overly precious fable set to a maddeningly harmonically static waltz -- with the title phrase repeated after every awkward couplet -- from being utterly insufferable. The album's most ambitious -- and, possibly excepting the incongruous "County Line," most successful -- moment comes with nine-minute closer "A Knock Upon the Door," a rambling narrative ballad and yet another waltz, this time with a rustic, old world lilt spiced up with a coolly sinister backing combo of banjo, bass clarinet, organ, chalumeau (a Baroque relative of the recorder), and found-sound percussion. It's the most potent and captivating expression of the gothic sensibility that runs through Wit's End, and one of a few potentially promising directions suggested by this odd, somewhat bewildering, and perhaps hopefully transitional effort.

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