by Dylan Brown
Big Wheels and Others ARTIST: Cass McCombs RATING: 4½ out of five LISTEN:
The critical fervor around Cass McCombs 2011 album Wits End drew me to the vagabond folk artist. It was part of a deluge of music, including a second album, Catacombs, released in 2011.
But aside from the mournful County Line, the music failed to stick in my memory. McCombs showed off a depraved-yet-firm grip on what I like to refer to as good country country without over-the-top twang and sickly sweet heartache.
Two years later, though, Big Wheel and Others, a two-disc, 20-song monstrosity, stuck me with its first dart.
In one of three excerpts from a 1969-documentary called Sean, a cute-then-terrifying 4-year-old from Haight-Ashbury tells the interviewer, who sounds eerily like McCombs, that he smokes grass and hates cops. Though not the next generation of McCombs as I first thought, Sean sets the tone for the rest of the off-kilter album.
Fitting for a man who spent most of his adult life a nomad, McCombs carnie-sensibility wanders through various genres to accent his acoustic guitar.
I believe in littering/Waste should not be hidden, as McCombs says on Home on the Range.
A saxophone is used both as an instrument of groove on It Means A Lot To Know You Care and then discomfort on Satan is My Toy. A grungy guitar and the taste of diesel surfaces on Big Wheel, while a harmonica buzzes on the bluesy Unearthed, harkening back to McCombs folk predecessors.
He waters his sing-song 1960s roots on the single Brighter! A beautiful rendition of the same song by Easy Rider actress Karen Black, who died in August, appears on disc two. McCombs dedicated the album to the Oscar-nominated actor.
While he does well using classic country lyrics sooner cheat death than fool love and a steel-guitar throughout Big Wheel and Others, McCombs is first and foremost a folk man. Like Bob Dylan, he has a strange logic and a propensity for bizarre-yet-grand metaphors, like the one he sings on Unearthed, about an apparently very time-consuming relationship: I moved 75,000 tons of earth with my teeth.
Brown may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 848-2278. Follow him on Twitter @DylanBrown26