Cass McCombs – review

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
After 10 years on the margins, enigmatic US singer-songwriter Cass McCombs looks set to reach a wider audience

Read Kitty Empire's review of Warpaint's new album here

Cass McCombs is a hard man to pin down. "My name written in water," he talk-sings at one point during tonight's set. Like many guitar toters shadowed by their own lengthening myth, McCombs doesn't particularly like interviews. He routinely gives little away about what his songs mean or exactly how he lives when not on a stage. It's said that one time, Domino – McCombs's label for his last few albums – had to hire a private investigator to get press shots of its client. McCombs conducted interviews for one of his 2011 albums, Wit's End, exclusively by letter. He wants to be famous, but "for falling in love", according to one of his oldest songs, I Went to the Hospital – as sonorous and affecting in 2014 as it was when it came out on A, his debut album, in 2003.

McCombs doesn't say too much at his gigs either. Tonight the cult singer-songwriter, 10 years into what others might call a "career", greets the Queen Elizabeth Hall with a friendly, laid-back: "What's up?" Towards the end, he introduces his able band, the latest in a long line of auxiliaries who temporarily fill out his songs. This all-seater establishment venue seems an ill fit for McCombs, a jobbing poet of the margins whose abode is, infamously, not fixed. Behind the band is a tableau of their flight cases, beautifully lit, as though to emphasise the fact that McCombs is just passing through, that he's all about just passing through.

Even by touring musician standards, this Californian singer-songwriter, 36, is an itinerant soul, blithely dodging straightsville, sleeping on floors, working construction jobs, not being averse to altered states. He is said to get by with a little help from his friends, who number now-famous people such as white-hot producer Ariel Rechtshaid, recent midwife of Haim and Vampire Weekend albums, who sat behind the desk on three previous McCombs records. Spiritualized's Jason Pierce is here this evening, as are Joe Goddard and Alexis Taylor from Hot Chip and the National's Aaron and Bryce Dessner.

The 2009 video for Dreams-Come-True-Girl probably pegs McCombs most succinctly. In it, he is the lovelorn cowboy at the skater kids' hangout, offering up surprisingly traditional Americana to an audience of slacker wastrels, attracted by McCombs's derelict status. Tonight the song gains in musicianship as McCombs (on acoustic) and his guitarist (electric) trade interlocking parts.

A Vice interview from 2003 describes McCombs as paying "$150 in rent", so it seems that his life of constant motion occasionally comes to some kind of pit stop. As a result, perhaps, propulsion and languor alternate affectingly in his music and tonight's tour-closing set is no exception. It powers up with Big Wheel, from his most recent album Big Wheel and Others, a rolling ode to "the taste of diesel and the sound of big rigs" that actually comes across like a desert blues. It packs the sort of apercus that have shifted McCombs a little way further into the canon of North American songwriters concerned with things such as masculinity, mortality and the road. "A man is bolts/ A man is rust/ For a little while/ Then a man is dust," he offers.

Later, guitarist Dan Iead moves to lap steel and everything slows right down to humid southern speeds. Country-rock alternates with soul; the cadences of the Velvet Underground swap over with interludes of jazzy spaciousness that creep unexpectedly into the guitar solo on Love Thine Enemy, an older song.

With Big Wheel and Others, McCombs reached a kind of milestone (at least, in the eyes of those of us who count these things; you expect McCombs prefers real stones that mark miles travelled). It's a sprawling double album full of musical ease, in which trouble is never far away. Now that Bill Callahan has gone from being cult balladeer to widely acclaimed artist, McCombs is probably the next in line to cross over from the hinterland of niche interest into the American storytelling tradition, not least because his songs are just so utterly listenable, eschewing the hackneyed lyrical angst or musical dissonance that so often comes with artists who like to think they are living in edge-states.

Instead, he unveils a heart-rending falsetto in the beautifully unhurried chorus of County Line, one of McCombs's most immediate country-soul songs. "You never even tried to love me," he croons. Here, McCombs feels so bad that he can't make out the passing road signs.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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