Cass McCombs opened his set at a sold-out Empty Bottle Friday with the chugging new song Big Wheel and he ended with his somber 2011 classic County Line. The songs between, picked from his seven albums over a decade, highlighted McCombs consistently good songwriting and unique take on Americana.
Saying little more than thank you to the crowd for the applause, McCombs spent almost no time between songs, playing an efficient set that included some mini jams. If you’re a fan of his music, I highly recommend checking out his live show. He may not be much of a conversationalist on stage but he delivers a great performance.
Arbouretum opened the show with a fine set of heavy folk. The video below is taken from a California show performed by McCombs last month. The Empty Bottle gig featured the same glimmering backdrop.
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.
“The only words I said today are beer and thank you. Beer. Thank you. Beer. Thank you,” Bill Callahan sings on his opening track, The Sing, from his just-released album Dream River. His lyrics can be sparse and his recording style remains simple but there’s something just intoxicating enough about Callahan’s music that brings me back. Callahan had an unenviable task of following up the superb 2011 release Apocalypse, but Dream River doesn’t disappoint. You certainly have to like this style of music (at least a little) but even if it’s not exactly your thing, Callahan has a seductive, disarming style that slowly draws you in. Comparisons are tough. Bonnie Prince Billy? Silver Jews? Leonard Cohen? You could lump him in with a wide swath of singer songwriters, but, as the best of the bunch usually prove, each artist is uniquely original. Callahan’s sound is fresh and interesting.
I love the musical style, too. It’s a mix of lounge, world, pop, folk, indie, and, I’m sure, a few more genres I’m forgetting. The music often serve as a background for Callahan’s poetic observations delivered in his deep, impassive voice. Dream River is an intriguing album and definitely recommended.
It’s not exactly Sandinista, but King Khan & the Shrines’ new album, Idle No More, shows a personal, sociopolitical and semi-serious side to a rocker better known for outlandish on-stage antics that may include bikini briefs. The album’s name is taken from an almost yearlong protest in Canada highlighting treaty rights abuses involving the country’s indigenous people. A Canadian, Khan, whose full name is Arish Ahmad Khan, says the album overall reflects his own personal pain. Yet in interviews and his own press material, he broadens his interpretation of the songs to reflect a larger meaning. The album “documents a very big healing process that I had to go through in the past few years and I hope that this music can help the healing process the world is so badly in need of right now,” he says.
In July, Khan told the New York Times that he had a breakdown and “was undergoing these serious psychiatric things … these (album) tracks come after thinking I’d never write music again.” Even as some of the lyrics touch on Khan’s struggles, musically Idle No More sounds full of hope and celebration. The music is punctuated by upbeat, danceable tempos and horns galore. It’s an anachronistic sound that’s been Khan’s signature over the years. Very fun, Idle would be fitting played at any end of summer party. As I said, Khan only shows a semi-serious side despite his personal demons.
A good EP makes the most of its handful of songs. So the pressure is on when you only have three songs to offer. Sic Alps delivers on She’s on Top. In addition to the title track, we get Biz Bag and Carrie Jean, all psychedelic pop beauts. Incidentally, all three landed a place on my summer playlist. But, then again, I’m a sucker for these Bay area rockers. Buy this EP now. It’s available on 12-inch vinyl or as a download.