Cass McCombs - Tip of the Sphere - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Cass McCombs - Tip of the Sphere

by Tim Sentz Rating:8 Release Date:2019-02-08
Cass McCombs - Tip of the Sphere
Cass McCombs - Tip of the Sphere

For the last 16 years, Cass McCombs has churned out reliable indie folk rock, with strands of punk and even psychedelia, on every LP. It took about 6 years into that career for him to get any sort of recognition when Catacombs dropped in 2009 to critical acclaim. His years of hard work had paid off it seemed, but even after that, his subsequent releases were well-regarded, but the spotlight never really shined on him.

It’s now 2019, and McCombs is following up his adored 2016 record Mangy Love, with another collection. One of my favorite things about McCombs is his indifference to traditionalism. He might get lumped in with folk icons like Bill Callahan, or even Yo La Tengo’s more softer tones, and his noodling might conjure up ruminations of Kurt Vile or the War on Drugs – but McCombs is on the far edge of those to me. He’s crafted a style unlike those, despite comparisons aplenty, he just feels freer. With Tip of the Sphere it becomes even more evident as he flashes forwards and backwards with his song structures. McCombs doesn’t write songs to reach top 10 lists, he writes to convey emotion purely. It’s hard to tell where all of it comes from, but McCombs is in charge on Tip of the Sphere, as he always is, but for the first time it feels like he’ll get some justification.

The near 8-minute opener “I Followed the River South to What” is the perfect summation of McCombs output up to this point. Gorgeous vibrations rattle your ears, but it’s warming, almost like Thurston Moore’s greatest solo effort Demolished Thoughts – a record I feel Tip of the Sphere shares a lot in common aesthetically, even if Moore’s collection is far more stripped down than McCombs’. It segues beautifully into “The Great Pixley Train Robbery” where McCombs muses on the old-west. McCombs has always steeped his writing in this kind of old-timey feeling, and it shines through on Tip of the Sphere wonderfully but also otherworldly. It’s a fascinating balancing act that he pulls off, but it works for him. This tends to backfire for new listeners as without active listening it can get passed off as monotonous or repetitive. McCombs doesn’t care about that though, he writes music for himself more than anyone else. “Estrella” seems ripped from any one of his previous records on first listen but is highlighted by McCombs charming wit on the guitar.

It’s not all folky noodling either, there are some absolute bangers on Tip of the Sphere like “Sleeping Volcanoes.” The album might be missing one of Cass McCombs’ brutal punk outbursts like “Rancid Girl” from Mangy Love, but that doesn’t mean he can’t bust out a head-bobbing foot-stomper. The album also takes a detour with “American Canyon Sutra” which will likely be the most skipped track on the album. Its peculiar psychedelia mixed with experimentalism is an acquired taste, but still a heady reminder of how distant from the genre McCombs has been. Fans of the more jammy aspects of psych-folk will appreciate the album closer “Rounder,” with its outro consisting of bluesy guitars, and organ keys, over a light but driving drum beat.

Tip of the Sphere continues McCombs delightful folk streak, and while it offers little new territory for him, there’s nothing wrong with that. Folk isn’t going to have a ground-breaking reinvention – Bon Iver be damned – but those in the genre are trying to make at least compelling music, and McCombs should be considered one of those pioneers. While other tastemakers like Fleet Foxes and even Woods have amassed more popularity for their brand of folk-pop that’s been taken to grander stages with the likes of The Lumineers and Mumford & Sons, McCombs has taken it to stranger places. Tip of the Sphere is a rewarding listen, it’s a labor of love from a man keeping the heart of Nick Drake and Elliot Smith alive.

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