The best-written fictional characters are the ones that do the unexpected, the ones that go against type. A good writer builds up his character with examples of his personality through word, deed and action, and then has the strength to tear it all down when that character is faced with adversity. For instance, picture the stereotypical hard-hearted father figure who is tough, stern and unforgiving, then, at the close of his life or someone close to him, he shows true affection and remorse. Or, conversely, the empathetic friend, who, after giving love all his life, and receiving nothing but disappointment, finally turns his back on someone in need. Yes, this makes for great storytelling, but does it translate into reality? One place it rarely seems to work is the world of music. Fans generally become anxious when their favorite artists throw them a curveball. They, for the most part, fear change. When Prince goes overboard religious (The Rainbow Children), Lou Reed embraces noise (Metal Machine Music) or Bowie joins a band (Tin Machine), the reaction is almost universally negative. But what happens when that schizophrenia is isolated into one album? That’s essentially what happens with Cass McCombs’ new release, Dropping the Writ.
Cass McCombs has had two albums, an EP and a boatload of tour dates to find himself among the indie elite. And yet, that level of success still eludes this young Californian songwriter. Despite tours with Modest Mouse and the Decemberists, as well as comparisons to Elliott Smith and Morrissey, McCombs has somewhat failed to tap into the zeitgeist consciousness. He has, however, secured a record release with Domino, that being Dropping the Writ. The title comes from an obscure parliamentary procedure that involves essentially dissolving the government, but don’t expect any kind of folk protest album of political outcry. At its best, Dropping the Writ is a breezy singer / songwriter affair with a few solid tracks. At its worst, it is a supremely disjointed album that varies wildly in music, lyric and style.
Having had his lyrical prowess thrown into a mix with such names as Steinbeck and Hemingway, I was stunned by the off-kilter lyrics in such songs as opener “Lionkiller” and “That’s That.” A commonly used maxim in writing is `write what you know,’ but when that limits your output to recalling a middle-class life and cleaning toilets in a Baltimore bar, is it worth the effort? After McCombs finally drops the façade presented in the first three tracks, created with Middle Eastern sounds, bass heavy rhythms and forgettable words, he finally gets on track with “Petrified Forest.” From then on out, Dropping the Writ remains an enjoyable album, if still a bit off-kilter. McCombs is at his best when he relies on his acoustic material and lyrics that remain a bit more obtuse than those that hit the nail too sharply on the head, leaving nothing to the imagination. “Petrified Forest,” “Morning Shadows” and “Windfall” find McCombs in excellent voice and strong songwriting ability, sounding a bit like some of the best Scottish songwriters such as Roddy Frame and the Silencers. McCombs voice is almost a dead ringer for Jimmie O’Neals during the aforementioned songs. (I know McCombs grew up in Cali, but his last name could have him tapping into something from some collective past, right?) “Deseret,” another strong track and highlight from the album, sounds like a cut from the last Midlake album, which is probably why he is garnering so much comparison to Lindsey Buckingham.
If I were to have listened to “Full Moon or Infinity” on its own, outside of the context of this album, I could have easily thought it a masterpiece. Sure, it’s a direct homage to Elliott Smith, even finding McCombs sounding eerily like the long passed singer, but it bears all the markers that made Smith’s songs so timeless, including personal lyrics, intricate guitar work and subtle harmonies. But, unfortunately for McCombs, he has it placed near the end of his disjointed third album. Listening to Dropping the Writ is like hearing a mixtape with one song vastly different from the next. And, just like a mixtape, listeners will undoubtedly find their favorite tracks and skip to them. I wouldn’t be surprised if “Full Moon or Infinity” ended up to be one of the more heralded compositions of the year, but I’d be floored if Dropping the Writ ended up on anyone’s top albums list at the end of the year.
The Silencers- A Blues for Buddha
Prefab Sprout- Swoon
Sondre Lerche- Phantom Punch