Cass McCombs delivers sprawling, fascinating ‘Big Wheel and Others’
Cass McCombs opens his ambitious new album with (partial) title track Big Wheel set to the tempo of a big ol’ trucker song. “I dig the taste of diesel and the sound of big rigs,” McCombs sings as he starts us on a journey through almost an hour and a half and one of the more intriguing releases this year. Big Wheel and Others is not a concept album and, really, the only unifying aspect about the lengthy record is that it’s a lot of good songs by one of America’s best singer-songwriters. Like most of McCombs’ work, the songs sound personal and from the perspective of an outsider. Country and blues are the most common musical influences running through the record.
Among the many highlights: Morning Star, Joe Murder and Angel Blood. There are far more hits than clunkers on Big Wheel despite its girth.
That’s not to say this is a perfect album. Everything Has to Be Justified is way too long. The jazzy instrumental It Means a Lot to Know You Care doesn’t work for me and seems out of place. When you record 19 songs for a single album, it’s hard for all of them to succeed. And then there are the snippets from Sean, a 1969 short film that features an interview with a 4-year-old boy in San Francisco whose parents are hippies. There are three roughly one-minute sound bites from the movie.
The late actress Karen Black made an appearance on the album, singing Brighter! It’s another highlight of Big Wheel. The song also appears earlier on the album performed by McCombs, but Black truly puts the exclamation point on the song. Black, who died in August of cancer, also appeared on McCombs’ 2009 release Catacombs, singing on Dreams Come True Girl.
Big Wheel closes with Unearthed, a softly delivered country-blues number. Musically, it’s a quiet song and not a particularly strong finish, but, thematically, Unearthed complements the tongue in cheek manliness of the opener, Big Wheel. “I moved seventy-five thousand tons of earth with my teeth.” McCombs, who is notoriously media shy, doesn’t lay out an easy map to read with Big Wheel but that’s part of his mystique.