Cass McCombs has created music that ranges from odd, reverb laden rock, PREfection’s “Subtraction” and “Equinox,” to somber folk, A’s “Gee It’s Good To Be Back Home,” to ethereal pop, Wit’s End’s “County Line.” Most recently, his records have been full of understated, richly detailed, cerebral songs that spread out like spider webs—you hardly recognize them for what they are before you are ensnared in their invisible, delicately powerful threads. The songs refuse to let go, clinging to your consciousness forever. McCombs, a master of genres and songwriting, has yet to be given enough credit for his achievements.
On Big Wheel and Others, out this week on Domino, McCombs surveys his wide variety of styles, providing his most diverse, complex, and rewarding album to date. Within songs and across the album as a whole, McCombs integrates so many layers, diverse arrangements, and shifting musical styles it’s impossible to do each service. What emerges is a restless collection of songs; McCombs paces from room to room of this musical mansion like a madman trying to pin down some imperceptible truth, and ironically discovers it contained within the search itself.
Moving between jazzy pop, folk ballads, 60s leaning slow-dance tunes, modern alt-country, and brooding grooves, the songs possess the ability to perpetually surprise. “Big Wheel” opens the album with a gritty, galloping arrangement driven by a looping guitar riff and ambling percussion. “Angel Blood” follows and wastes no time before moving in a divergent direction by integrating soft acoustics and glimmering pedal steel, which crops up throughout the album as on country ballad “Sooner Cheat Death Than Fool Love.”
Many of the songs do possess a cohesive approach, relying progressive takes on Americana with on toe-tapping rhythms and intricately layered musical motifs; subtle guitar noodling under keys in “Morning Star,” balanced bass and guitar picking over loose drumming on “There Can Be Only One,” and whining brass swirling in the busyness off “Satan Is My Toy” all serve as varying examples of this approach. Big Wheel and Others features an instrumental, upbeat latin-rock leaning “It Means a Lot to Know You Care,” and even has interludes of interview excerpts culled from the 1970 documentary Sean about a 4 year old living in the Haight-Ashbury district in the 60s.
A pair of mid-album, plodding, jangly tracks—“Joe Murder” and “Everything Has To Be Just-So”—integrate dark musical elements, setting themselves apart from the album’s majority. McCombs inhabits a brighter place than Tom Waits, but there’s a note of that famed songwriter among these tracks. Speaking of brighter, McCombs gives us two versions of a song called “Brighter!”—one featuring himself on vocals and the other sung by repeat collaborator, country singer, and actress Karen Black who recently passed away. Both are great. Black’s version must have been one of her final recordings and is a true musical treasure, harkening back to classic country and swaying 60s dance numbers.
Big Wheel and Others is as relentless in quality as it is in alternating style and arrangement; it is a consistently superb mélange of wondrous songs quilted together to form an impressive whole, unified by its multiformity. McCombs has bestowed upon us a rare gift of an album, one that’s sure to remain one of the year’s finest.