|part of:||Filter Magazine: Top Ten Albums of 2009 (number: 7) (order: 7)|
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A classic On The Road-style American drifter, Baltimore-based singer-songwriter Cass McCombs effectively distils half a century of his homeland's musical traditions on his excellent fourth album, the wryly titled Catacombs.
Born in California, McCombs left his home state in his early twenties and has since shifted restlessly from city to city, including stints doing open mic slots in New York and periods in Chicago and Los Angeles. This wandering spirit pervades his wistful, literate songs of love, loss and regret, which although perhaps best described as gentle country rock do not truly sit comfortably in any one genre.
McCombs has an undoubted gift for easy, flowing melodies, which together with his organic, acoustic and pedal steel guitar-heavy sound give many of his songs a timeless feel. The lovely opener Dreams Come True Girl could be a lost Buddy Holly track, while the serene, lilting Harmonia has the front porch folksy charm of prime Willie Nelson. Best of all is the world weary, conversation in song poetry of My Sister My Spouse, which carries the lyrical and musical bite of Dylan's Blood On The Tracks.
Attempts to raise the tempo beyond the pleasantly shambling fare a little less well. Lionkiller Got Married tries to be a driving epic but suffers from an ill-advised and unsubtle refrain based on a well-known English obscenity. Thankfully, he soon rediscovers both his decency and his poise, and Catacombs closes strongly with the Counting Crows-like Jonesy Boy and the elegiac One Way To Go.
Although he never reaches the heights that would help carve his own place in the pantheon of American popular music, there's no doubt that McCombs is a true original, steeped in the troubadour's art and with many engaging tales to tell. So while Catacombs probably isn't a record that will change your life, for 50 minutes at a time it will certainly make it more enjoyable.