Album Reviews

Cass McCombs – A

(4AD) UK release date: 1 March 2004


Cass McCombs, apparently an “unobtrusively brilliant” singer/songwriter from California, last year received critical acclaim for his EP Not The Way, distributed outside the US by legendary UK-based label 4AD. The question now, however, is whether or not his first full-length outing A will live up to the hype.

To put it bluntly, A is often enjoyable but rarely engaging. You could probably spend all day listening to tracks like I Went To The Hospital and What Isn’t Nature, and have a jolly nice time with the drawled delivery and lackadaisical production, largely reminiscent of early Pavement efforts. You won’t, however, be drawn back the following day, or have any hooks or riffs stuck in your head (with the possible exception of the Beck-esque My Master). A passes fairly anonymously, which is a shame really.

Imagine, if you will, a cross between Stephen Malkmus and Badly Drawn Boy, unfortunately devoid of the former’s overt quirkiness and lacking the shambolic-yet-endearing nature of the latter. The problem with McCombs on A is that we can’t tell how serious he is. He’s curiously ambiguous throughout, which only serves to cloud any message he may have had.

On the one hand you have McCombs’ distinctly laid back style, meandering through songs and employing the absolute minimal of production or polishing. Tracks are pleasant, and whilst none will set your ears on fire, there doesn’t appear to be any filler here. Aids In Africa, a typical McCombs song, takes a simple chord progression and repeats it ad infinitum with acoustic guitar, a little electric guitar and, in this case, a Hammond organ.

Plodding through the album (it’s good enough to listen to all the way through, I’ll give it that), you’ll find that A Comedian Is Someone Who Tells Jokes borders on sounding fatigued, Gee, It’s Good Being Back Home suffers the same fate at a higher BPM, and Meet Me Here At Dawn, whilst pressing all the right sonic buttons, sounds a little bit sterile.

A is an agreeable set of songs, and would serve well as the background music to some lazy summer day. The problem is simply that A feels far too shy, and unwilling to be counted. Perhaps in time it will reveal a more loveable nature, as albums of this sort tend to do, but it’s immediate impact falls far short of the standards set by McCombs peers. A is the album Pavement made and weren’t happy with. Make of that what you will.


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More on Cass McCombs
Cass McCombs @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Cass McCombs – Wit’s End
Cass McCombs – A