Following a record he released about six months ago and carrying a title that seems like a direct rebuke to that fraternal twin’s, there’s a temptation to treat Cass McCombs’ Humor Risk like a missing locket half to the slow, stunning WIT’S END. Jumping to interpretive conclusions isn’t new for the singer/songwriter’s fans. McCombs plays his mysterious troubadour role to a tee-eluding the typical music-press shuffle with the dedication of a mid-90s Belle and Sebastian member, corresponding with would-be interviewers in longhand notes sent by USPS. He’s claimed his near-constant output isn’t focused on crafting albums. His most-current work simply gets grouped into conveniently distributed containers. So, while nearly anything would be brighter than the spare, harrowing songs featured onWIT’S END, this set isn’t quite its whimsical counter-weight. The pace has picked up some, though. Lightly distorted, repetitive riffs mark opener “Love Thine Enemy.” The rhythmic pop chug of advance single and album standout “The Same Thing” has sort of an aloof Nick Lowe quality, while its delicate secondary hook sports Simon & Garfunkel softness. “The Living Word” wrestles with philosophy while structurally resembling gentle waves repeatedly lapping up on shore. He still ends up sounding spooked and sad, mostly. His narratives remain elusive, sucking you in, shrugging you off. “Not that it matters the names, the place, or time,” he states plainly, just having providing all three in arcane detail.
It’s the lyrics that make or break McCombs’ songs. They’ve remained the focus of his music throughout multiple stylistic permutations (from heavily orchestrated folk to minimal strumming, with a detour through some distinctly British moping). On Humor Risk, he’s supposedly stepping outside himself to sketch out the lives of friends and acquaintances, though straight reportage was never his style. Some songs lurch strangely from painstakingly crafted couplets to ill-fitting clunkers. The acidic “To Every Man His Chimera” contains both ace, Dylan-being-mean bits (“Is that supposed to be a nose? No, not you again”) and grammatically strangled rhymes (“California makes me sick, like trying with a rattlesnake your teeth to pick”) that sound even worse than they read. “Robin Egg Blue” casts ambiguity with a brighter tone, finding resonance in looping strums, reiterated word clusters. McCartney melodic flourishes and an interest-piquing story about shipping drugs to Greenpoint via mail, don’t lift “Mystery Mail” past a sketchy shamble. But a song later, “Meet Me at the Mannequin Factory” masquerades as chit-chat with a secretary and finds a sort of Zen poignancy in all of its square-peg slant rhymes. Wading in to see which sideways sentiments stick is a chief pleasure of McCombs’ records. Slight sonic wrinkles, like the gauzy, Ariel Pink-gone-folkie filter on the closing “Mariah” won’t warm those previously left cold. This bunch of tracks doesn’t have the uniform melancholy that cohered its predecessor, either. Still, in his continued prettiness, weirdness (“and pretty weird”-ness), McCombs remains an unusually compelling album artist. No matter how adamantly he claims he isn’t purposefully making them.
Photo: Sandy Kim