By Paul Balazs
I first heard Cass McCombs in 2010 when I heard Catacombs. It included the beautifully written “Dreams-Come-True-Girl,” which I still listen to this day. I can’t say I have celebrated his catalog, but I can say his name stuck with me for the past five years. With that being said, I really took a liking to the idea of giving his new release A Folk Set Apart, a good solid listening. I was pleased to find it is a B-Sides and Rarities album for a few reasons. I want to hear new songs by McCombs and this album includes five unreleased tracks. I am interested in what Space Junk is, and it involves his catalog spanning the past decade.
The album starts with “I Cannot Lie”. It immediately gets going with a lo-fi garage rock sound that creeps in the walls, separating you and the trash panda by the garbage outside. A soft delivery with conviction plays off of the bouncing bass line with ease. The lo-fi opener then crashes into “A.Y.D”. It has already started showing the range of production that is to follow for the rest of the record. McCombs sings “I cannot get away // I am here at your disposal” for the main hook before the vibrating organ temporarily shoots your mind out ten feet in front of you. Although repetitive almost to a fault, this track still sits in a nice place for me. Without a blink, the next track, “Oatmeal”, goes old school lo-fi again. This is where I would personally draw the line for mixing/production styles. It just doesn’t fit as well for the album, but if I were a fanboy of McCombs, I would be glad it is in there. I guess that is what a rarities album is for after all.
Swimming forward to “Twins”, A Folk Set Apart shifts to give off a real nice under-the-ocean feeling with some melting and atmospheric chord changes. “Lie to me,” he sings, with conviction and regret. I always think it is nice to have that connection with a singer. “Minimum Wage” stumbles along in the verses and resolves into a stable two-part harmony chorus. “Poet’s Day,” again, takes it back to the older lo-fi sound. He surely recorded most of these songs in different studios and locations throughout his career. For “An Other” he keeps it rock n’ roll and simple. The vocals are sadly recorded on what seems to be a terrible microphone in a bedroom, or something. It just isn’t a good fit for the rest of the B-Sides and Rarities. A real step up happens when “Bradley Manning” starts. Although this song was already released on Democracy Now, it also was my first introduction to it. I have got to say: it is a really nice tune with its use of dust storm guitars. I am not too into the whole “political song” thing, but I can’t speak for everyone, can I?
This album has plenty of guest artists playing on it as well, such as Joe Russo (Furthur), Mike Gordon (Phish), Chris Cohen (Deerhoof), and more. Joe Russo plays drums on “Evangaline”. This is a fun little tune and you can’t deny you’ll be singing “Evangaline” over and over after your first listen. “Empty Promises” sounds like a George Harrison BSide of sorts. It has a slow phase and an Eastern vibe until the chorus gets dark and mysterious. After “Empty Promises”, McCombs cries out to hang on to a lost love for “If You Loved Me Before” which just seems, well, you know, perfect. The folky “Three Men Sitting on a Hallow Log” has got simplicity oozing out of its pores. While it remains lyrically mundane, you are like Jesus on the dashboard of a moving vehicle the whole time.
When it comes to house demos, I have always been a fan of the sound coming from the room on the other side of the wall. “Lost River/Old River” has this quality. I like to imagine a hardwood floor and 12-foot ceiling when I hear it. “Old is Angry” is another bedroom demo that sucks you in like a Dyson. Now on “Texas”, the lo-fi works great. A cabasa and a hand drum of some sort back up two clumsy acoustic guitars and a sincere Cass McCombs bellows soft words. Then, there is the goofy interlude that shows off an early career goofiness that sets up a string of odd and eclectic changes including a spoken word section.
Moving on to “Night of the World”, you will get a sense of the new Kurt Vile album B’Lieve I’m Goin Down even though I am sure this was recorded well before that. For “Traffic of Souls” I get a real nostalgic feeling that reminds me of Harry Nilsson and Van Morrison. This is a really fun track that bounces along effortlessly. Nearing into the end of the nineteen-song album, “Catacombs Cow Cow Boogie” transports you back to the late 1950’s with a classic Sleepwalker groove to it; not to mention it happens to be instrumental too. The final track, “The State Will Take Care of Me,” is a nice, kind, caring, and nurturing song. Cass McCombs’ voice whips you off your feet and leaves you hanging in the willows. It really is the best way he could have ended this album.
Looking back on it, you cannot simply see this as a whole. The recordings are all too diverse and span his entire career. With that being said, I think there were some additions that didn’t have a place, on what is otherwise, considered to be a really great record. There are enjoyable aspects on every level of production going on here and you really need to give it a close and attentive listen to appreciate what it has to offer. I look forward to taking a stroll back in Cass McCombs’ catalog for past releases to see what I have missed.