Be patient with Cass McCombs. Not because his music is demanding or dense in any quantitative way – his seventh album, Big Wheel and Others, is his most adventurous since 2007’s Dropping the Writ, but that’s merely because it’s peppered with strings and squalling sax and pattering drums. No, you have to be a little patient with McCombs, 35, because he records material as eloquent as it is glacial, and some of his latter-period songs have a haunting brevity comparable to that of Raymond Carver’s short stories – you can’t intake many at a time or they won’t sink in.
On the one hand, McCombs is an eccentric, or at least it’s easy to think he is – he’s not on Twitter, rarely does press, and has acted (or not acted) in at least one skit poking fun at his media-shyness. But more critical is the poignancy with which he writes, which makes it that much easier to see eye-to-eye with him despite having little to no real-life perception of what he’s like as a dude.
He’s had that gift awhile now; 2009’s “Dreams-Come-True-Girl” was indelibly ingenuous, while 2011’s “County Line” was a gastropod grower. Even some of his early material (2003-07) had its bursting images. Be warned, though: For all its slices of modest pop, Big Wheel runs 85 minutes long. You wouldn’t normally call Cass McCombs ballsy, but giving us such a lengthy record is about the ballsiest thing he could do. An hour and a half would’ve been more sittable if this resembled his louder, more dynamic early stuff. It doesn’t. But if you are willing to absorb Big Wheel – not a casual task, even in two or three sessions – you might find it’s his most rewarding, and his most representative, album yet.
Part of that can be attributed to McCombs’ humor, especially funny and prominent here, which keeps you on your toes when the songs push six, seven, even nine minutes. When he sings “I tried my hand at poker, that old godless game,” it says a little about him – he’s presumably lost more chips than he’s won, but he’s willing to goof about it. Less immediate is his reasoning for including snippets from the 1970 documentary Sean, in which the four-year-old son of Haight-Ashbury addicts divulges his atheistic impressions of Earth and says he’s already developed an appetite (in two ways) for weed. My own (admittedly fuzzy) interpretation of this is that McCombs wanted to Venn the impressionability of a toddler with his own, time-tested worldview.
Still, the main takeaway here is not that this is another witty album from a guy who’s always had at least the tip of his tongue in cheek. It‘s a climactic, often sincere one from a guy who’s been stripping back his sound for years in order to key on the basics of songwriting.
Like his fellow indie-pop pranksters Jens Lekman and Mac DeMarco, McCombs has a knack for progressions and melodies that thoroughly complements his wit. “There Can Only Be One” is this record’s obligatory charmer, so fragile that one weak line would’ve ruined it. “Sooner Cheat Death Than Fool Love” is more of a weave but just as delicate. McCombs and the recently deceased Karen Black (she of “Dreams-Come-True-Girl”) both perform, on two separate tracks, “Brighter!”, and both versions are endearing. The simmering road-rock of proper opener “Big Wheel”, meanwhile, evokes Philly quartet The War on Drugs.
Again: This album is 85 minutes long. It will take a truly patient listener to not just sit through the album, but to parse McCombs’ language and internalize the spare arrangements. I’ve spent many hours with Big Wheel over the past week, and for me, it’s offered a wider range of delights than any of his past LPs. The next step for McCombs from here might be to couple rudimentary songwriting with the Technicolor layering of Dropping the Writ. For now, though, Big Wheel and Others shows that he already does well with ambition.
Essential Tracks: “There Can Only Be One”, “Sooner Cheat Death Than Fool Love”, and “Aeon of Aquarius Blues”