2011 was a busy year for Cass McCombs. Besides building the air of mystery around him to an almost fever pitch (which included amongst other things a stage setup that completely obscured him and his bands faces) he managed to put out not one, but TWO albums of new material. Ryan Adams, it would seem, isn’t the only hyper-productive artist around these days...
First out of the gate was the darkly complex Wit’s End. McCombs' songs have always leaned a little towards the dark end of the spectrum, but on Wit’s End he completely overwhelmed both musically and lyrically. McCombs created a mood piece that isn’t entirely fit for everyday listening, but man what a rush a sit down with this record provided. Subtly psychedelic and emotionally raw, Wit’s End is going to have a place with the headphone set and in darkened dorm rooms for years to come. And that single, “County Line”? Yea...that actually happened.
So what to do next if you are Cass McCombs? Why, make a fairly straightforward indie rock record of course. Humor Risk takes zigs away from the Laurel Canyon looseness of Wit’s End right out of the gate with the track “Love Thine Enemy”. With a blast of fuzzed up, four on the floor guitars, “Enemy” comes of like some long lost Velvet Underground track, with McCombs delivering the line “Love my enemy. But I hate their lack of sincerity” in a Lou Reed snarl that rivals that of the aging art-rocker himself. It’s a sharp contrast from and murky psychedlia of Wit’s End to be sure, and it establishes a punky, nostalgic tone that the rest of Humor Risk is positively soaked in. Whether it’s the bleats of electronic organs that give tracks like “The Same Thing” an almost Doors-ian quality, or the seemingly sunny pop of “The Living Word” or “Robin Egg Blue” McCombs is painting some rather remarkable soundscapes with a familiar brush, resulting record could just as easily exist in 1972 as it does in 2012.
The highpoint though, comes on the almost 8 minute long, practically all verse exercise in slow-burn storytelling that is “Mystery Mail”. On first listen, this straightforward tale of two drug slinging friends and the fate that befell them both (Hint: It doesn’t end well) may come across as plainly simple songwriting, but repeated listens reveal ever growing layers of subtle changes to the driving guitar line and the instruments supporting it underneath. It’s a steadily building pressure cooker of a song that locks you in for the ride, making it impossible to turn away as Daniel and our narrator speed towards their self inflicted doom. The feeling of release when McComb’s finally hits the chorus at seven minutes in (you read that right), is palpable and leaves you satisfied in much the same way that the barbiturate cool of “County Line” did on his previous record.
There’s been some minor criticism of Humor Risk, saying that it seems like an album of out-takes from Wit’s End, but to believe that is sort of missing the point. Would it have been interesting to combine the two into some larger, arguably better record? Maybe, but that’s like saying Pink Floyd should have combined Animals and Wish You Were Here into some uber head trip called Darker Side Of The Moon instead. Every song cycle has it’s place in an artists career, and as it stands, Cass McCombs delivered two minorly (if that) flawed gems into the world in 2011 and all we can really say to that is “Keep em coming, Cass. Keep em coming.”