Between 2003 and 2014, Cass McCombs released seven full-lengths. The last of these, 2013’s Big Wheel and Others, was a monolithic 22-track double LP that clocked in at close to an hour and a half in length. In other words, McCombs has given his fans plenty to chew on over the past decade-plus, which bears the question: does he really have enough leftover material from that era to make an odds ’n’ sods collection worthwhile?
The answer, it turns out, is yes. A Folk Set Apart comprises more than a decade’s worth of non-album material, including rare singles from an assortment of underground labels and five unreleased cuts. There are guest appearances from the likes of as Mike Gordon of Phish and Chris Cohen of Deerhoof, and some of the sonics are distinctly rough and unpolished. Still, even though this is more of a jumble than it is a cohesive album, the quality of these 19 songs is admirably high, especially considering that none of them were earmarked for studio LPs.
The opening half of the collection highlights McCombs’ punchy rock inclinations: opener “I Cannot Lie” charges out of the gate with tireless, “I’m Waiting for the Man”-style fuzz strums, and the ferociously jagged distortion on “Oatmeal” benefits from the raw production. The badly mixed vocals on the cowbell-clanging bar-rock number “An Other” and the flubbed high notes on “A.Y.D.” are a little too rough for their own good, but the songs themselves make up for it. The harmony-laced pop swoon of “Evangeline” makes it a particularly strong highlight.
Despite a lack of overall cohesion, A Folk Set Apart does take listeners on a stylistic journey of sorts, as the back half of the collection is more eclectic and rootsy “Three Men Sitting on a Hollow Log” is a campfire standout with a hypnotically bouncy groove and an effectively repetitive melody that resembles a jody call, while “Traffic of Souls” is a bluesy cha-cha ditty that’s pleasantly quirky despite having a far-too-long five-minute runtime. Elsewhere, the folksy numbers aren’t quite as consistent as the rockers: “Texas” is a meaning art-country experiment that moves from clumsy balladry to directionless noodling to spoken word poetry to freaky avant-garde noisemaking, while “Catacombs Cow Cow Boogie” is a throwaway instrumental jam that plays off twangy 12-bar tropes.
Still, isolated blunders aside, A Folk Set Apart shows just how much solid material McCombs has had sitting in his archives. While most B-sides collections are fans-only affairs, this one could also serve as a good entry point for those unfamiliar with the songwriter’s albums.
review by Alex Hudson