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Cass McCombs - Tip of the Sphere Music Album Reviews

On his ninth album, the reserved bandleader incorporates more classic rock references than usual, but they’re the frames for subtleties and surprises within.

Cass McCombs is open about his tendency to borrow from his predecessors. “I always approach my own music as a listener of other people’s music,” he told Red Bull Music Academy in 2017, several months after the release of his last album, Mangy Love. “My music is a response to the music that I love.” On McCombs’ ninth album, Tip of the Sphere, his hands are more visible than usual as they thumb through a familiar record collection. From the Elton John piano that opens “Absentee” and the pulsing “American Canyon Sutra,” which recalls Lou Reed with its sober spoken-word intonation, to the Haight-Ashbury grooves that echo everywhere, these songs speak through the familiar voices of classic rock. “The Great Pixley Train Robbery” is a story-song worthy of Dylan, “Estrella” an intricate guitar work suggesting Richard Thompson. “Sleeping Volcanoes” could be a great lost Warren Zevon B-side. Because McCombs and his band toy with familiar sounds, even his new songs feel worn and cozy, like winter clothes pulled from storage at the start of December.

The blunt references and clear echoes may fool you into thinking this music isn’t somehow original. But McCombs and his band use the obvious as a sort of feint. Through fine details and sudden switchbacks, they reveal hidden layers and twists. “Real Life,” for instance, initially feels like a lovely, lived-in folk jam. But in its last minute, it accelerates, as drums that had kept a dreamy tempo suddenly stir awake and dance, transforming the song into something strange and new and wonderful. While the Elton John piano catches your ear during “Absentee,” Sam Griffin Owens’ sax warbles down in the mix, a class clown whose mischief makes the day’s lesson more fun for everyone, teacher included.

Sphere is heavier than Mangy Love, but it doesn’t sport that record’s melodic highs, either. Still, it’s the more rollicking listen, with songs that alternate paces as if driven by some constantly shifting breeze. The interplay between McCombs’ guitar and Dan Horne’s bass on the record’s more upbeat tracks, like “Train Robbery” or “Rounder,” even recalls the energy shared by legendary tandems, like Townshend and Entwistle, say, or Duane Allman and Berry Oakley. (Horne showed this clear chemistry with McCombs during Mangy Love.) McCombs’ voice, too, has become as sharp as any instrument—crystalline and tremoring on “Prayer for Another Day,” and then shifting immediately to low and foreboding on “American Canyon Sutra.”

McCombs possesses a rare ability to diffuse improvisation into these sharply arranged songs, allowing for spontaneity during the recording process by disguising it. On “Sidewalk Bop After Suicide,” a rigid guitar-and-drum structure keeps getting nudged out of place by little flourishes. It’s the kind of thing that makes Sphere equally enjoyable whether you’re listening passively or actively; the record doesn’t demand attention but rewards it generously. The same is true for McCombs’ lyrics, which drift from the abstruse (“Rounder,” seemingly influenced by the Scottish ballads the singer loves) to the lucid (“Tying Up Loose Ends,” on which a single verse asking about long-gone relatives makes for the record’s most heartbreaking moment). The sequencing of Tip of the Sphere feels so instinctual that it’s hard to ascribe intention to it, but there’s a clear intelligence at work here. Two long jams, “I Followed the River South to What” and “Rounder,” are the bookends, but they breeze by, as does the rest of the thing. Tip of the Sphere is a confounding trick of time distortion, the shortest hour-long record I’ve ever heard.

Familiar McCombs motifs appear: the dubious value of money, the dubious application of justice, reincarnation, what it means to live in nature, to be imprisoned, to be homeless. The turbulence you’d expect to hear in 2019 flashes up, too. “Thank you to the authentic fake/Our true enigmatic uncle/Welcome to coo-coo land!/Home of the fake,” McCombs sings during “Sleeping Volcanoes.” But the record is more moving in its smaller moments. “Tying Up Loose Ends,” the prettiest song here, has one simple verse, in which the narrator finds an old box of family photographs and wonders in vain, “Is there anyone still left who can tell me who all these people are?”

Every so often, listeners will refer to McCombs as if he belongs to a simple category—the cagey-interview-giving, mystique-preserving singer enamored with his own enigma, a counterpart of Bradford Cox. But McCombs has never really devoted an excess of energy to his own legend or the way he’s perceived; he likes to talk about his ideas, not himself. As he moves into his fifth decade, the fact that McCombs has never defined himself clearly seems to be working in his favor, making it impossible to see him as familiar, as an old story. Tip of the Sphere again rejects easy definitions and expectations, growing and surprising with every listen.

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