Cass's fourth album and second for Domino evokes a return to his early, simpler sounding works, "A" and "PREfection". It's full of storied songs flush with emotional relevance and accessibility. Each track is cloaked in shiver inducing melodies that lay the perfect foundation for Cass' true source of transcendence his vocals and lyrics. McCombs carries on transcending fad and fashion to ensure the art of songwriting lives on.
Review by Tim Sendra
On the album he released previous to 2009's Catacombs, Baltimore singer/songwriter Cass McCombs began moving away from the reverb-heavy, lo-fi sound and busy arrangements of his first two records in favor of a more direct sound with cleaner production. Here, McCombs strips away the remaining traces of his early bedroom-crafted indie pop sound and aims for something simpler that takes the focus away from the sound of the record and places it firmly on the wordy, emotionally charged songs and McCombs' vocals. The vocals are always up to the task; McCombs has ditched the jittery yelping he sometimes used on Dropping the Writ and instead settles into a warm and intimate style that instantly draws the listener in closer. The songs are mostly strong, too; almost uniformly quiet and introspective, they create a mood that lingers throughout the album like a melancholy haze. Tracks like the yearning "Dreams Come True Girl" or the tender, epic "Harmonia" cast a quietly desperate spell; in much the same way American Music Club did, only with less sarcastic wit and more resigned sadness. Only the lightly skipping "Prima Donna" breaks the feeling and adds some much-needed sunshine. The problem with creating an album this uniformly midtempo and hushed is that by the end, the listener may be screaming for a song to show some spunk or to kick the tempo up past the "lope" setting. It doesn't happen here, and it's not really a big problem because the songs and mood are so cleverly established and sustained. The bigger issue is that a couple songs are overly wordy or hook-free ("Don't," "Lionkiller Got Married," and "My Sister, My Spouse"), and this is where the album could use some instrumental coloring or production tricks to add some much needed distraction. For the most part, though, the album is an enjoyable addition to McCombs' catalog and shows him growing as an artist. While some fans of his early work may be left behind, most people who enjoy witty songs with tender emotion behind them will be satisfied with Catacombs and happy with the direction he's headed.
Cass McCombs works quietly. Over the course of three full-lengths and five years, McCombs has quickly slipped in and out of scenes, skipping from one major American city to the next like he owed stacks of cash in every one. He's played with folk, grafting bedroom pop flourishes to sonic skeletons just strong enough to support them. He swam through 1980s Brit jangle and deep chasms of reverb. No matter how much mileage he accrued, one constant held firm: His lyrical shell games often kept listeners at arm's length, regardless of how well-crafted and inviting his melodies were. McCombs' songs were addictively opaque-- easy to hear, tough to digest, and even more difficult to describe to your friends over beers.
McCombs' slipperiness seemed as much like a rejection and re-routing of the traditional singer-songwriter tag as it did a refusal to meet a listener halfway, as though the dude were allergic to interpretation or the idea that someone, anyone, might want to peer inside his braincave. It all sounds like a carefully conceived blend between garden-variety male vulnerability issues and wild-eyed, guitar-toting-dude-who-fancies-himself-an-enigma bullshit. But on Catacombs, his fourth full-length and most stripped-down effort to date, the singer-songwriter steps out from behind the curtain that's cloaked his work in the past. And despite the sparser arrangements and increased focus on direct lyricism, it's every bit as aurally hypnotic as his previous work. It seems like he realized there was someone he really did want to sing to.
Reportedly a tribute to his wife, these are songs for the heart more than the head. Opener "Dreams Come True Girl" is beautiful evidence of that. It's a straight-ahead chord progression that's just a minor chord kiss away from Bright Eyes' "First Day of My Life" and Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright". McCombs washes it in Pacific surf, lets it dry, and then flips it into a late-blossoming duet with actress Karen Black of Easy Rider and Nashville fame. A stunt cameo like that could easily fog up a recording, but Black's turn and lower register compliments the feet-up vibe really well. "You Saved My Life" waltzes farther into territory, McCombs' croon swaying along to a bass line that never ever loses its way. Hammocks of pedal steel, duvets of synth, steady breaths of acoustic guitar-- it's a warm, understated arrangement that typifies music for sunlit rooms and Sunday mornings. Most impressively, there is not a trace of sap or slobber to be found anywhere.
"The Executioner's Song" takes the same approach to speech-song serenading and despite a defiantly mid-tempo pace that borders on drowsy, its heartbeat doesn't waver. "Harmonia" and "Prima Donna" are simple strummers that recall early-70s Dylan, the former an especially strong showcase for McCombs' voice. Smooth as river stones and perfectly evocative when dipping into baritone raps or twirling in falsetto, it's fit to carry songs so bare. "Lionkiller Got Married" traces narrative threads back to 2007's Dropping the Writ and signals a shift towards the outwardly old-timey and too well-defined-- a rickety template that only serves to box him in. In fact, the bounce of "Jonesy Boy" and Main Street shuffle of "One Way to Go" both run on and out of steam.
It's good reason to come back to the beginning though, to the track whose directness stands tall above a set with inches to spare: "Dreams Come True Girl". Given a song like this (the chorus straight up kills me every time), and a staggering mind/skill set like McCombs', it's remarkable that he's avoided being part of the greater discussion on great American songwriters. While Conor Oberst's been saddled/showered with New Dylan hosannas and critical tongue baths this decade, McCombs has fashioned himself a groove as new school rambler and pokerfaced tone poet totally under the radar. It's a space he seems and sounds to have been most comfortable in. Until now.
— David Bevan, July 10, 2009