Cass McCombs < Jason Mraz? A Discussion of Strummy Songwriters

CASS MCCOMBS- CATACOMBS

While this is, ostensibly, a review of Cass McCombs’s new album Catacombs, it will end up being a rundown of the guy-with-guitar-and-heart-on-his-sleeve genre, a genre that’s getting a little too bloated of late. Someone needs to sift the wheat from the chaff, and, unfortunately, Cass McCombs is firmly in the chaff.

I can sum up Catacombs for you in one word: boring. Or two words: fucking boring. How about three? Really fucking boring. You get the idea. Moving on.

There are several variations on the dude/guitar/singer/songwriter formula, some of which are all right and some of which are annoying as hell. Jason Mraz, while still a more compelling listen than Cass McCombs (it pains me to say that), traffics in the gimmicky word-play, gee-look-how-fast-I-can-spew-semiclever-lyrics sort of singing/songwriting. So, needless – but still fun – to say, Jason Mraz really sucks. This doesn’t seem to stop people from adoring him, much like another strummy bum I know named Jack Johnson who is my generation’s Jimmy Buffet (those of you who have read Bollocks! even one time know there is no way that can be a compliment). Jack Johnson did a bunch of songs for the Curious George soundtrack and it still impresses me that he escaped playing the titular character as well.

And I’m not merely complaining about the genre here because there are good singer/songwriters out there. They’re just hard to find sometimes. M. Ward is pretty awesome, largely because he writes good melodies and has a deliciously old-school sound to him that I really dig. Elliott Smith was one of the best of the stummy bunch, and is probably largely responsible for people like Cass McCombs and this one uber-emo kid I saw at a small theatre in Sherman Oaks last week (I’m not gonna out the kid here, but he was hilariously, embarrassingly bad – I literally laughed through his set).

Technology has served to somewhat democratize the music business in recent years because we’ve reached a point now where anyone with a laptop and a halfway decent microphone can make an album. The one big downside to this is that anyone with a laptop and a halfway decent microphone can make an album. It doesn’t mean everyone should. I can’t speak for McCombs’s other albums, but with Catacombs, he’s crafted easily one of the ten most boring albums I’ve ever heard (and my parents listen to Kenny G for dog’s sake). So if you find your normal listening choices a little too exciting, why not try Catacombs?

McCombs’s biggest mistake is assuming that long and winding melodies will compensate for the one-dimensionality of the record as a whole. In his case, the melodies are all delivered at a near-whisper (I know Iron and Wine does this but the key difference is that Iron and Wine is, generally, awesome) and in half the songs, they’re repeated well past the five minute mark (incidentally, I don’t have a problem with songs being longer than five minutes. But, if you’re going over five, your song should be at least as awesome as The Clash’s “Straight to Hell” or LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends”, which surpasses seven minutes and is still one of the best songs of the decade. Yes, the whole fucking decade). While Pitchfork finds this “aurally hypnotic,” I would like to suggest they’re confusing hypnosis with coma-inducing boredom.

Elliott Smith was one of the few singer/songwriters I can think of who could whisper his way through most of his songs and not sound like a tool, and that’s largely due to a lyrical skill that your McCombses, Mrazes, & Johnsons couldn’t touch in a lifetime of trying. Listen to “Say Yes” if you doubt that shit. In fact, listen to all of Either/Or and XO if you doubt that shit. And, if you doubt that shit after that, you’re quite possibly hopeless.

There’s a certain point where I feel like Cass McCombs is too committed to the shtick of being a lo-fi, quiet, “mysterious,” singer/songwriter and that’s a death trap for innovation. Tom Waits realized this in the early 80s  when he got tired of being the wisecracking, boozed up, jazz/country piano man and started making some of the most interesting (and awesome) music of that entire decade. And yet, I somehow doubt you’ll hear much about Frank’s Wild Years on I Love the 80s. Why? Because, as stated so many times before, VH1 knows fuckall about good music. (And, in a way, Tom Waits is the king of all the singer/songwriters – I’m not one to agree with the Pitchfork kids much, but I have a hard time disputing their assertion that “You will not write a better song than Tom Waits. Period.”)

Some of you may want to cry “sexist” at me for not including any women in this singer/songwriter rundown, but here’s why I didn’t: generally speaking, the women do it better than the boys. Neko Case would roughly fit the singer/songwriter mold here and Middle Cyclone is a fucking masterpiece. If Catacombs could compare to it, I’d give Cass McCombs an actual review instead of using his album as a springboard to complaining about his chosen genre.  (I just envisioned sitting the two albums on a table together and watching Neko leap off that car’s hood and chopping Catacombs in half. Kathleen Edwards is also superior to many of her male counterparts, though she seems to get a lot less press. Ani DiFranco is not only better than Jason Mraz but I’m pretty sure she could beat him in a fight (also, she’s one of the most truly, committedly, and successfully independent artists out there right now – so independent, in fact, that Pitchfork doesn’t seem inclined to review her albums). And I know she’s been quiet for a while, but I’ve got pleny of love for Beth Orton as well.

So here’s the thing, I think: the solo singer/songwriter field is littered with mediocrity because it’s so easy to do. You buy a guitar, figure out some chords, and then pour your soul out onto a piece of paper. You weld the words to a melody you can repeat with your modest vocal range, you repeat it until someone listens, you make an album, and some asshole in Los Angeles spends a thousand words and the better part of a morning completely shitting on your precious art. On a long enough timeline, we can all be singers in cafes and, no matter how shitty our songs are, we can find at least one person who thinks we’re so deep. But let’s not do that, okay? Please?

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