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Monthly Archives: November 2013

CASS-MCCOMBS-BIG-WHEEL

Big Wheel and Others is such a wonderfully anachronistic title.  It could signify a Native-American travelling band, short stories on the Oregon Trail or a map of frontier towns.  However, with great bathos I soon discovered that the most likely meaning is of an album that contains ‘Big Wheel’ and also has other songs.  Hell I wonder if Mccombs only chose ‘Big Wheel’ because it was the first track on the album.  But it’s this wonderful balance of engaging with a genuine tradition while also taking a sly sidestep where Mccombs reaches great moments of genius.  For example his undoubtedly best song ‘County Line’ evokes a wonderful image of the untamed west, and then mixes it with heart-wrenching lovesickness.  But in entirely focusing on the title theme, and even personalising the county into something unrecognisable (as in who really misses a county?), Mccombs avoids cliché and achieves a great personalised version of sorrow.

With this in mind it is also the case that Mccombs is at his most mediocre when he treads too close to his musical ancestors that he ends up treading on their toes.  Cass Mccombs’ previous album Humor Risk fell into that category.  It contains all the trappings of Mccombs: calming but upbeat rhythm of guitar and backing band, and his dulcet tones in the middle.  But it more just ended up sounding like a cover for a second-rate band from the 60’s.  And so when the artwork for Big Wheel looked like an expanded version of Humor Risk’s cover, I was more qualmed than calmed.

The first observation is that this double album of 22 songs is probably best described as ‘Others’.  Despite the four chapters of recordings of a stoned four-year old in a 60’s documentary, they don’t seem to have created much order with the track arranging.  Indeed this sprawling, unorganised effect is what put off the album’s detractors, Mojo saying it ‘seems to go on forever, and not in a good way’ and the slightly more complimentary NME saying ‘turn it off halfway through and its brilliant’.

But sprawl can sometimes be a good thing: look at Music from Big Pink or The Basement Tapes, from which Mccombs certainly takes a few pages in this album.  Because ultimately double albums can be broadly by divided into two camps: either the songwriter cannot contain his vision in one album alone or he is having such a good time recording that he doesn’t want to stop.  I think Mccombs falls into the latter category.  He even doesn’t mind doing two versions of the same song, ‘Brighter!’, one by himself and then later by the late Karen Black.  And it’s a good song too.  In fact, it gives a good idea of the whole album- that it’s not a gamechanger song but you’re certainly not going to change it when you hear it again down the line.  Each track slides gracefully through your ears and out the other.  You might not even notice that there is a nine minute epic song in the middle, ‘Everything Just Has to Be So,’ it’s the somnabulent beauty of the whole process.

Of course this means that Mccombs’ new record isn’t a eureka experience- there’s no real heartstring pullers like ‘You Saved My Life’ or poetic inspirationals like ‘I Went to the Hospital’.  Instead there’s just a real sense of contentment in performance, the jazzy jam of ‘It Means a Lot to Know You Care’ or the uplifiting bass riff of ‘There Can Be Only One’.  This album won’t be known as Cass Mccombs’ greatest album, but I bet that on his eventual retrospective (that I’m 70% certain he will write) he’ll say that it was Big Wheel that he had the most enjoyed creating.

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Califone have carved such an idiosyncratic legacy for themselves that whatever various genres try to cling to them only the add-on ‘deep’ seems to have any right to stick.  Oh the experimental-alt-country-rock hijinks these beardy fellas get up to!  After 15 years of being active, and with their excellent 13th album Stitches out this year, the three-piece show no signs of offering a ‘lite’ version to their sound.  Indeed it’s almost comforting that Califone show no desire to turn a new leaf and go for the big time.  Instead they’ve almost refined their goals even more.

Last year the band did a relentless ‘Living Room Tour’ across America, where they performed in whatever living room fans would offer them.  I myself even volunteered my place up in Durham, UK, which unfortunately did not cause impetus for a European tour.

However a year later, The Lexington was not much bigger than a living room.  In fact the guys looked like they had come straight out of a living room.  Lead singer and guitarist Tim Rutili wore a layer clothes that could not be easily distinguished from each other, and he and likewise dressed regular Ben Massarella on bass remained seated for most of the show.  This was not a sign of lethargy but more an indifference to keeping up appearances.  In fact making an impression beyond the music seems not have been on their minds for quite a while.

The act started with possibly Califone’s best song ‘All My Friends are Funeral Singers,’ that gradually came into being through random looping and feedback, which the band used to transition all their songs throughout the set.  Like opening your eyes and having them gradually put into focus.  The solid power chords and really excellent drumming ‘Funeral Singers’ (actually drumming was superb throughout) was a great entrance, but from a personal level I was hoping of it being further in the set when they had built up energy.

Then after a few gags by the band about ‘Free Bird’ and an imagining an 80’s film called ‘Summer Boners’ starring Chevy Chase and with three sequels- the band got into the thick of it with their new album Stitches.  And though their latest album doesn’t have the immediate power as some of Califone’s earlier greats such as Quicksand/Cradlesnakes or Roots and Crowns, it did have a slow burning effect of consistently good songs after another, which their performance reflected.

The band were at their strongest with the louder stuff, and the set highlight was the banger ‘Electric Fence’ from their second eponymous EP.  They also shrewdly accepted picked out some of their earlier greats such as the requested ‘Michigan Girls’ and ‘The Orchids’.  Then finally ended with the great beating chorus of their new single ‘Frosted Tips’ where Rutili even decided to stand

So Califone created a handsomely informal version of what their fans had imagined of them.  They finely rode the line between pockets of beauty and grating background noise.  I wonder if my interest would have wavered if the set had continued, or even they had accepted an encore.  But this qualm was not so much a doubt about the band’s ability but perhaps a reflection on the band itself: That their greatness rests on the fleeting glimpses of wonder through the layers of thick noise.  And if you strain to hard to find it, you’ll always end up disappointed.