Cass McCombs: 'Wit's End'

Cass McCombs

Wit's End (Domino)

Cass McCombs writes and records great songs. His albums are sometimes more problematic. Release after release, he manages to dazzle with a handful of indelible moments. Release after release, the whole somehow manages to underwhelm a bit. So goes Wit's End.

Here he retreats even further from the indie/band attack of his earlier recordings to something closer to the more spartan singer/songwriter sound of the early '70s. Or maybe it's just the gorgeous, long-limbed Jimmy Webb-esque melody, the electric piano, and the chorus falsetto and "whoa whoa whoa"s of opener "County Line" that brings the comparison to mind. An arrestingly beautiful ballad addressing the repulsion/attraction of the old hometown, it's sure to speak to anyone who's ever gone back again and found the place changed, though not nearly enough. But the cruise-control languidness of "County Line" follows through the next track, and the next, each built from a bare few instruments that go strolling off at moldering tempos, leaving you alone with McCombs' boyish croon and lyrics (there's a lyric sheet, you can't miss ‘em) that put aside "County Line"'s straightforwardness in favor of an awkward mixture of trad ballad form, arcane references (from Tarot to "hi-chloridize polyethelene resin"), and emotional confession. Sometimes it works because of the words ("Saturday Song" takes mournful measure of the day of the week most folks look most forward to), sometimes in spite of them ("Pleasant Shadow's Song" beguiles with a halting, almost bossa nova-style verse melody and a quasi-bridge that never seems to stop unfolding), and sometimes not at all (nine-minute closer "A Knock Upon the Door").

Perhaps the most effective moment on Wit's End comes at the three-and-a-half-minute mark of the plaintive waltz-time "Memory's Stain," when the song proper ends with McCombs gently worrying the last lyric as the band softly vamps, and then they keep going. Piano, brushes, accordion wheeze, acoustic bass, and bass clarinet carry the chords forward as tenderly as a dying friend, sans vocals, sans any notion that there's an ever an end to come. It's a magic moment seized, and hopefully McCombs can manage that more often.