Music Reviews

Cass McCombs Catacombs

(Domino) Buy it from Insound Rating - 7/10

I don’t think my housemate likes Cass McCombs very much, and I’m to blame.  I have, over the last week or so, been playing You Saved My Life from Catacombs at night when I get in.  I can’t help it, it’s the prefect late night track, and Catacombs is excellent late night music. 

I heard You Saved My Life when I saw the excellent video for it, directed by Eric Fensler.  The video cuts between a couple slow-dancing in a room full of lights and a shot that slowly follows a figure (potentially McCombs) walking around a festival, in what could be northern Chicago, at dusk.  The visuals are an excellent accompaniment for the music, both take their time and focus entirely on a single mood; an end of the day ambience, an evocative twilight that’s simultaneously strange and familiar, and ambience is McCombs’ greatest strength.  There are very few artists who can create and suggest so much with such bare instrumentation, nor sustain it for an average of over five minutes a song. 

Catacombs is McCombs’ fifth album and I have to come clean and admit that I was unfamiliar with his work prior to my experience with the aforementioned video.  It speaks volumes of this song, and this album, however, that it can entice a listener in so well with one listen to such a seemingly slow-burning track.  The truth is that McCombs is blessed with enough individuality and sheer presence to enable him to record songs that are understated in delivery but similarly hook the listener in entirely.  It’s a remarkable gift, and one very few song-writers out there have. 

You Saved My Life is not, however, the only track that exemplifies this trait.  Dreams Come True Girl, which opens the record, pulls of the same trick while doing so over a fairly conventional country ballad set-up, with lyrics that pay homage to a simpler, more direct, form of song-writing., and while I hesitate to use the word “conventional”, there is something pleasingly familiar about listening to Catacombs.  It’s not so much a sense of knowing what’s going to come next musically as really being able to feel at home and connected with a record from track one.  Sometimes, it turns out, this really isn’t such a bad thing at all. 

It doesn’t always work out like this, though, and it’s a tight rope to walk; there’s playing good, honest (whatever that word means) music, and there’s sound-tracking the latest magical-realist, dancing baby, dramedy show, with only a margin of error either way.  While Eavesdropping On The Competition and Jonesy Boy won’t necessarily being appearing on any coffee tables in the near future, they don’t feel up to the standard of the other nine songs. 

This is a small complaint because when Catacombs works, it really works, and it mostly really works.  McCombs sounds relaxed and confident throughout a collection of what may be mainly love songs (the album is apparently dedicated to his wife), and the record is worth it for Dreams Come True Girl and You Saved My Life alone; they’re really that good.  It’s also nice to hear music being made for the sake of music itself, devoid of any gimmicks, pre-emptive fame, or other distractions.  Hopefully Catacombs will turn more people on to this unique yet familiar sound.  Remember though, please listen at night.