Cass McCombs has, over the course of 9 studio albums since 2002, turned himself into perhaps the most interesting and essential songwriter of his generation. Notoriously difficult to interview or squeeze any useable personal information out of, his mythos has built itself almost exclusively upon albums that combine a casual rebellious nature, curiously brilliant wording, and cool AM rock/folk/psych instrumentation that just seem to strike the right chord. He has been impeccably consistent, not a dud to his name to date.
McCombs 9th and latest release is Mangy Love. Three years have passed since the sprawling ode to the American west ‘Big Wheel and Others’. McCombs now finds himself on a new record label – Anti, and with a newly formed backing band. Mangy Love is his most outgoing record to date, ambitiously recorded with 21 extra session musicians. Its also his best work since career highpoint ‘Catacombs’. McCombs has always had a quiet confidence about him, as if realizing what he has to say is important enough that he never has to scream it out – people will listen eagerly to him whisper. The tracks on Mangy Love don’t entirely do away with that whisper, but he has altered his delivery a bit, ever so slightly, as if finding a new found reassurance in his own voice. He is singing more than ever before, relying less on his characteristic half spoken half sung style, McCombs is pushing himself – as evidenced on the high falsetto ‘Medusa’s Outhouse’ and the all out soul stylings of album standout ‘Low Flying Bird’. The music itself, however, takes a larger leap. The new production team of Rob Schnapf and Dan Horne, combined with the aforementioned 21 extra musicians have produced the fullest and best sounding album of McCombs career – a rich tapestry of horns, flutes, sublime bass and a generous helping of jazz and soul influence. For his part, McCombs is soloing more than ever, and to great effect.
As with any Cass McCombs album, the beauty of Mangy Love is in the details not necessarily noticed upon first listen. His vocals are still relatively low in the mix and despite the more outgoing singing style, he isn’t exactly belting the tunes out. Repeated listening reveals that not only has he hit a peak in musicianship, he is at the top of the his game lyrically as well. He takes direct aim at sociopolitical themes in his traditionally surreal and opaque manner – musing on the racist military industrial complex on opener ‘Bum Bum Bum’ and a sexist justice system on the feminist anthem ‘Run Sister Run’. Problems run inward on the lead single, the gorgeous and stir-crazy “Opposite House’ which features backing vocals from indie darling Angel Olsen.
After the last two releases in McComb’s catalog, the b-sides and rarities collection ‘A Folk Set Apart’ and the sprawling, at times good and at times non essential ‘Big Wheel..’ he has returned to making an album that demands your attention from start to finish. If I’m cautious to call it his best (that title is still reserved for 2009’s Catacombs in my mind) its only because in the 7 years between that album and this one, expectations for any given McCombs release have sky rocketed. Thats a good thing. Mangy Love is one of the years best releases and excitingly adds another career high water mark for an artist who continues to surprise.
Review by Matthew Poole