Cass McCombs
Sat Aug 20
Doug Fir Lounge
830 E Burnside

As any hack music writer can tell you, there's nothing like classic infatuation to completely curb the creative impulse. I can (and usually do) sit in my office cranking out dismissive, semi-clever quips about fair-to-middling indierock all day long without so much as breaking a sweat—thankfully, the AC in the surprisingly posh Mercury offices keeps things at a comfortable 78 degrees—but when it comes to writing about stuff that I really, really love dearly, it's like pulling teeth with salad tongs. In this sense, the music of Cass McCombs has long been one of my greatest creative nemeses—deceptively simple, elusive, and very difficult to do justice to in print.

Over the course of two full-lengths and an EP, McCombs has crafted a fine, if incredibly ambiguous discography—the cloudy, opiated reverb of his six-song debut Not the Way, the beautifully brilliant (though slightly uneven) molasses folk of A, and the bounding, bizarre British pop leap of his recent PREfection are all obscured in equal parts by the music's muddy production haze and McCombs' knowing lyrical vagaries. If his press release is to be believed, all of this smoke and mirrors is something McCombs himself seems to cultivate—accurately describing his music as "emotionally blank," "elliptical," and ultimately "impenetrable." At the same time—though it seems pretty contrary—McCombs' music is beautiful, moving, and above all else evocative. His lyrics—sung with a reverb-drenched, nostalgic tenor—marry seemingly exhausted clichés with largely formless narratives, and seem at once impressionistically emotive and completely inconsequential.

Up until the recent release of the more band-oriented set on PREfection, McCombs' music has been marked by its remarkably airy simplicity—a very particular kind of uniformity that created an incredibly absorbing environment, despite its generally straightforward guitar, drums, piano, and occasional organ folk setup. PREfection's compositional leaps—most notably its tempo changes and heaving British synths—helps and hinders in equal measure, expanding McCombs' elemental vision as much as it cracks his well-established spell. Still, McCombs' careful cloud becomes even more shadowy—the dark, cold veil of synthesizers obscuring things even more than the walls of reverb, and with lyrics more calculated and indefinite than ever. Whether all of this makes him some sort of aloof genius or just a clever musical illusionist may be debatable; but one thing's for certain about Cass McCombs—he only shows what he wants to be seen.

On paper, McCombs' many contradictions might make him sound totally incomprehensible and inaccessible—in fact the vast majority of his music is simply palatable indierock by design. Outside of McCombs' effortlessly brilliant melodies, there are few immediate cues that his music is at all discernibly superior to much of what it resembles. McCombs' elaborate sonic shroud—only reinforced by the one he purposefully surrounds himself with—has a suspiciously enveloping property over time; a syrupy, nostalgic haze with an earwiggy way of embedding itself into eardrums. It may be emotionally blank, but in the same sense, it's also emotionally manipulative—wistfully evocative in a way that's more universal than personal. It's this incredibly elusive quality that's at the heart of McCombs' brilliance—and one that, despite my best efforts, I'm never able to satisfyingly characterize. Trust me on this one—that's a good thing.