Overlooked Albums of 2011: Cass McCombs

Cass McCombs (Best of 2011)

As the year comes to a close, Hive asked some of our favorite music writers to talk about excellent 2011 albums that went unrecognized.

The week Cass McCombs played L.A.'s Echoplex, part of the homecoming stretch of his fall US tour, a parcel arrived containing two seven inches by the man. It’s already been well-documented that McCombs’s prolificness was such that he released two full-length studio albums in the calendar year of 2011 and the singles were pulled from these. There was “County Line” b/w “County Line (demo)” from April’s album Wit’s End and “The Same Thing” b/w “Poet’s Day” off of November’s release Humor Risk.

"Here, pain and love remain the same thing."

McCombs is a bit of a shadowy figure in indie-rock circles, releasing records yet bristling at interview requests and news cycles (it’s also noted that he leads an itinerant existence, drifting from town to town). To call his fifth full-length Wit’s End a bleak listen is a bit of an understatement. Yet who else could sing the chorus of “Buried Alive” so that it sounded like the loveliest fate imaginable? While names like Dylan and Cohen get evoked to describe McCombs’s lyricism, his songs eschew poesy to emphasize the smallest of details, to where I wonder how they would read as a short story. Adding to such small pleasures on the album are sumptuous touches of seldom-deployed instruments like celesta and bass clarinet.

Listening to these two singles again on the warm if arcane 45 format, it turned out that these were also the only two most familiar songs of the night. Despite touring in support of two new albums, Cass McCombs and his live band presented a set drawing heavily from 2009’s Catacombs and reaching all the way back to his first EP and album, as well as a new song about US Army whistleblower Bradley Manning. Deflection and misdirection are part of McCombs’s “unobtrusively brilliant” skill set (to cite John Peel) and even in front of the stage, that stratagem holds true.

A bank of lights flickered behind McCombs and band onstage, backlighting them so that they were mostly shadow. Similarly, considered lines like “the same sameness from opposites cling/ pain and love are the same thing” are veiled by the band’s interplay. Steel guitar and electric organ solos emulate not just a crack country & western bar band but also (and this isn’t just L.A. talking) the Doors.

The set’s highlight for me remained “County Line.” When I first heard the song earlier this spring, the moment Cass’s high tenor mingled with that electric piano line, it was my song of the year. And that’s before the plaint of “You never even tried to love me” became truth, soundtracking a low point in my own personal year. It has much in common with The Band’s “Whispering Pines” or the Velvet Underground’s plaintive “Candy Says” (whereas “The Same Thing” feels kin to “What Goes On”) or any slow, heartbreaking R&B ballad from the early 70s. Yet for all of the beauty of the song, there’s an awful truth in it as well. Here, pain and love remain the same thing, with the devastating realization that what you really wish for a former lover is: “Hope your pain is never-ending.”