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Cass McCombs

Big Wheel and Others


Oct 30, 2013 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Cass McCombs returns with a double album, drifting around the genre map and proving his prolificacy can’t depend on any particular narrative, any overarching marketable story beyond, perhaps, the utilitarian version/vision of songcraft. With that in mind, let’s just slap him with the “enigmatic” tag and discuss a few of the more perfect constructions presented here.

“Angel Blood” quietly devastates, moving along on sentiment and punctuated with lilting pedal steel, affecting that nostalgic sadness McCombs previously reached for on tunes like “County Line.” Lyrically, it’s hard to pinpoint: a brainy love song, an homage to the book of the same title, an outsider’s tale: “Angel blood like the Holy Grail/I’m hanging from your wing by my tail.”

“Morning Star” will earn mention in every review, pairing as it does that trademark lilt with gently delivered hilarity like “What’s it like to shit in space?,” going obtuse and effectively dismantling itselfa McCombsian move.

“Brighter,” which is an earworm and a half, appears twice on the album, once with McCombs on vocal duties and the second time with the late actress/singer Karen Black. Black succumbed to cancer in August, and that knowledge gives this one a particular poignancy. It would have carried that anyway, given Black’s performanceher ad-libbing at the end of the song is both hilarious (“nitwit writer”) and heartbreaking, a testament to the song and its strange context.

Songcraft break: Dotting the album are somewhat cryptic excerpts from Ralph Arlyck’s Following Sean documentary (for which McCombs provided a soundtrack tune). The film featured ‘60s interviews with a precocious/loosely-parented 4-year-old on subjects like drugs, the existence of God, and what exactly “America” means“you know, half of the world.” That particular quote precedes “Home on the Range,” fittingly, which states its narrator’s beliefs (“I believe in stealing/For we cannot possess anything”), plays with our geographic tropes (“I’m going west where I belong”), and serves up solidarity satire: “I believe in junk food/In solidarity with the poor and screwed.”

Big Wheel just keeps rolling along, a moody, ambitious collection touching on travel, impermanence, the soul, manhood, statehood, and then some. Its finest moments beg for dissection as much as repeat listens, and McCombs in his woodshed keeps bashing this imprecise art form into perfect shapes. Control of the craft. (

Author rating: 7.5/10

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Average reader rating: 9/10


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