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Album Review: Cass McCombs - Tip of the Sphere


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Cass McCombs is a seasoned musician whose mature songwriting is admirable but not always exciting on this politically engaged, yet simultaneously laidback album.

Image by Tore Saetre via Flickr

Tip of the Sphere is the ninth full-length studio effort from the California-born artist and its intricately-drawn geometric artwork is indicative of the detailed interlocking approach taken to many of the songs’ construction. Combs’s experience shows across the record, his signature restraint and subtlety setting the tone throughout the track listing almost without exception. Never swamped by other musicians or overblown production, this album leaves space for an individual to shine through. Sadly, Combs never seems to fully step into the light he has created for himself.

Beginning with picked guitar and shouty harmonies ‘I Followed the River South to What’ then develops into a slightly psychedelic jam to open Tip of the Sphere. It establishes a connecting thread that continues across the album’s duration of questioning predetermined paths. We start off from a position of complete disillusionment with the “American Dream” in lyrics such as “If you’re so hard up, why not try to steal” asked by the track’s well-to-do antagonist, which is met with the reply, “Right now I’m sunbathing, maybe later I will”.

‘The Great Pixie Train Robbery’ follows on from this and is a bit more conventional by comparison with fuzzy guitar and slightly manic piano glissandos towards the track’s conclusion. The lyrics are eclectic with lines such as, “before postal authorities can act/ I surrender myself unto the reward” and there is no chorus.

One of the album’s most interesting pieces is ‘Real Life’, which features Indian tabla throughout and has an engaging amalgamation of sounds, easing us in with piano chords and sweet strings. Around the four-minute mark the tempo picks up and there is some pleasant fingerpicking guitar with goes through several chord modulations almost with an inflection reminiscent of Paul Simon or perhaps more recently, Ben Howard.

‘Sidewalk Bop After Suicide’ feels pretty much as throwaway as its nonsense title. It features tremolo guitar and rolls along at quite a leisurely, almost “pedestrian” pace. The lyrics are faintly evocative of a sense that the world will keep on turning in its careless way in spite of the personal tragedies that happen every day, but the suggestion is vague rather than vivid.

Rather than invite us for a meandering stroll, ‘Prayer For Another Day’ bids us sit down in contemplation during a track that exudes chill from its every pore. There’s a luscious delay effect on McCombs’s vocal that separates it from the trends of modern recording technique, and this is also applied to instrumentation, which is allowed to be much more dynamic than much of the rest of the album. Slide guitar warbles in blissfully over acoustic strumming in what is a stretched out, vintage moment.

The second to last track, aptly named ‘Tying Up Loose Ends’, is really little more than inoffensive, shuffling along with its wah-wah guitar and breathy saxophone. ‘Rounder’ concludes the record over 10 minutes, the first five of which are really a bit of a slog until it kicks in halfway through and takes on a bit of a groove. That said, it fails to rise much above dad rock in tone.

Overall, Tip of the Sphere instrumentally has a vibe that sits somewhere between Steely Dan, Mac Demarco and Kurt Vile, but without the personality or quirkiness that comes with the latter two. It shines lyrically, particularly on the trip-hop inspired oddity ‘American Canyon Sutra’ but fails to stand out much from the crowd otherwise.

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