With his soft, cooing voice, mastery over multiple instruments, and striking physical features, Cass McCombs could damn well be a celebrity. Write a couple of aching ballads, throw in a dash of studio magic, and he’d be able to join the long list of nameless singer-songwriters currently populating FM radio.
Fortunately for his devoted fanbase, McCombs has no plans to pander to the masses, and he suffers little for the fools who would hope otherwise.
“Most musicians I know, we want to expand our craft, and that involves trying new things all the time and taking chances,” says McCombs, who will play at the Great American Music Hall on Wednesday, Sept. 14. “That could result in a lack of consistency I suppose, but I think the smart listeners — the ones who I’m communicating with, and not the idiots — want that same thing, to feel that creative pulse.”
It’s those “smart listeners” who have embraced McCombs’ latest effort, Mangy Love, which came out on August 26. A challenging yet beautiful collection of sun-dappled ‘70s pop nuggets, down-tempo folk songs, motorikking Velvet Underground homages, and bass-heavy new-wave compositions, Mangy Love excels at defying expectations at every turn.
The album starts with “Bum Bum Bum,” a slow-moving, breezy number that evokes Kurt Vile and sets the mood for a placid, serene album. That feeling is quickly disrupted, however, by the jarring, riff-heavy “Rancid Girl” on the second track. The scene then immediately resets with “Laughter is the Best Medicine,” a jazzy number featuring flutes and warmer vocals from McCombs.
McCombs clearly has no interest in making his audience comfortable or complacent. A song like “Medusa’s Outhouse” is a gorgeous, melancholy creation, replete with wailing slide guitars and McCombs’ lilting falsetto. But it’s interrupted midway through by an angry, spoken-word diatribe of “If it’s so easy/ You try.” There is no instant gratification on McCombs’ creations — they require repeated listening, which ultimately makes the payoff that more satisfying.
“I like the songs that have a life of their own and grow and change and mutate over time,” McCombs says. “The poppy song isn’t always the best one.”
Mangy Love also has an undercurrent of political protest with the 38-year-old singer-songwriter decrying racist and sexist justice policies in songs like “Bum Bum Bum” and “Run Sister Run.” Yet, McCombs refuses to get on a soapbox a la ‘60s Dylan, preferring instead to pen lyrics that are esoteric and opaque — hinting at outrage without pounding listeners over the head with blatant protestations.
“I wouldn’t want to embark on a song that has some preformed marketable kind of concept,” McCombs says. “I think it would just be dead in the water.”
As a Bay Area native born and raised in Concord, McCombs say his shows in San Francisco are usually special affairs, although he takes nothing for granted when he plays in front of the home crowd.
“There is no resting on the laurels of locality,” he says. “We still have to play and perform to the crowd and show them a piece of our heart.I may be from the Bay, but that doesn’t mean I’m safe here. Any show, anywhere, can either be a miracle or a disaster.”
Because of his candid responses, McCombs has earned a reputation as a bit of a grump. Nearly every publication that covers him mentions his aversion to interviews, but a quick Google search will reveal that he’s completely accessible to writers. He’s very affable over the phone and takes his time answering every question in a thoughtful manner. He just doesn’t have time for the people who won’t find a proper connection with his music.
“If I could imagine a perfect listener, it would be someone who is aware, not only of the context of my music, but also of the context of music history, from folk to experimental music to punk — the whole gamut,” McCombs says. “I’m not really interested in people who are uninformed — their opinions are irrelevant, and they should just shut the fuck up.”
Cass McCombs plays with Meg Baird at 8 p.m., on Wednesday, Sept. 14, at Great American Music Hall. More info here.