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.