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Album Review
Wits End

Wits End
by Cass McCombs


Review Date
19th May 2011
Reviewed by
Natalie Finnigan

Americana/Alt-country music is so popular and accessible these days that it is not only difficult to stand out, but it is difficult to do something original without departing from the essential sound that defines the genre. Cass McCombs is one of those elusive Americana artists whose offerings are eaten up by the critics but rarely receive popular acclaim: a little strange when the artists he has toured and collaborated with read like a who’s who list of the indie, folk, and country genres i.e. Arcade Fire, Band of Horses, Beach House and The Shins.

If you were to listen to McCombs’s albums in chronological order you would notice a gradual departure from a more traditional Americana sound, towards a sound it feels like he was searching for since his debut EP release in 2002, but didn’t quite find until he recorded his last album ‘Catacombs’. His new album ‘Wit’s End’ feels like the end of the search. It’s bleak, lonely and beautiful, yet playfully ironic at the same time. It’s as if McCombs is attempting to juxtapose ideas and emotions within every song as he skips from light and lilting to eerie and dark, and back again.

‘County Line’ is my favorite track on the album. It’s a song which rolls along easy and sad like all good Americana songs should. It has elements of the enormously popular 70s country folk ballads written by the likes of John Denver and Glen Campbell, but with a lot more subtlety and grit. The chorus line “You never even tried to love me” is delivered in effortlessly beautiful falsetto.

Several tracks such as ‘Memory’s Stain’ play with the green sleeves-ish baroque sound that McCombs flirts with throughout the album. It’s eerie in the way that fairground music is, with a facade of whimsy but a darker undertone. This is particularly evident towards the end of ‘Memory’s Stain’, where the gradual introduction of accordion and clarinet in a lush, orchestral arrangement at the end of the song creates a beautiful but bleak soundscape.

‘Wit’s End’ is a classic Americana album one the one hand, but McCombs has added depth by using unexpected instruments in orchestral arrangements which draw you in to mournful and mysterious scenes. His brilliance is in his subtlety. He doesn’t assault you with a concept, but rather lets you settle into a song before he turns it on its head in such an understated way that the change of tone comes as a surprise.

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