CASS McCOMBS: PREFECTION (2005)
1) Equinox; 2) Subtraction; 3) Multiple Suns; 4) Tourist Woman; 5) Sacred Heart; 6) She's Still Suffering; 7) Cuckoo; 8) Bury Mary; 9) City Of Brotherly Love; 10) All Your Dreams May Come True.
Already he is moving away from the formula established on A — only a few songs here, such as ʽCuckooʼ and the closing ʽAll Your Dreams Come Trueʼ, give us the same dreamy tempos and repetitive verses... and I sort of miss it. The general idea here is that if you speed up the tempos, pump out a bit more energy, throw in even more instruments (often bringing the atmosphere to Phil Spector kind of standards), and make your vocal melodies more similar to Roy Orbison pop than to Leonard Cohen balladeering, this gives you an entire new face. And it does, but somehow it does not feel as uniquely enchanting as it did on the first record. Maybe because deep-booming dream-pop with lush overtones is something that is constantly on the market, be it courtesy of British Sea Power or Sufjan Stevens, while something as ridiculously simple and entrancing as "I heard my Master, spoke with your Master..." is not. Or maybe some people are born for captivating simplicity and some people are born for challenging complexity. I have no idea.
Anyway, that is not to say that Prefection, or, rather, PREfection, as they prefer to stylize it, is bad or boring. In fact, Cass is good at carefully preserving his essence while pouring it into a new bottle — one offered to him by the 4AD label, to which he was now signed, and given 4AD's emphasis on all things dreamy, from Cocteau Twins to Dead Can Dance, the shift in style may have come automatically and subconsciously. ʽEquinoxʼ greets us with big bashing drums, deep echoes, a subliminal synth river tone that runs through it, and vocals that are just as beautiful as they used to be, but are now so echoey and delicate that sometimes you almost feel them rather than hear them. Meanwhile, the lyrics become even more cabbalistic than they used to be ("deep in the heart of Fontainebleau / the marriage of a whore and a Jew"? which hidden episode in French history have I missed?), and I prefer to distance myself from them altogether and simply enjoy the sentimental mysticism of it all. If there's black magic involved, I don't want to know, but the melody certainly suggests nothing of the kind.
On ʽSubtractionʼ, he takes the base rhythm of ʽYou Can't Hurry Loveʼ and, again, adapts it for his own purposes, as he does with a lots of things subsequently — except that ʽSubtractionʼ has no catchy chorus; instead, just as the prolonged synth tone colored ʽEquinoxʼ, so is ʽSubtractionʼ colored by equally long-winded organ notes, giving the song a religious rather than amorous aura and culminating in a howl of "please leave me alone!" that subtly suggests, like ʽA Comedianʼ on the previous record, that the artist does have painful concerns of his own, and is not always resigned to the role of outside observer.
The musical experiments, rooted in accumulated experience, continue with ʽMultiple Sunsʼ, spun around a martial bassline and prog-rockish synthesizers in the background; ʽTourist Womanʼ, the man's first attempt at a really fast song, with hideously distorted guitars, a frantic rhythm track shamelessly appropriated from The Jam's ʽPrivate Hellʼ; ʽSacred Heartʼ, all jangly-like and soulful and sounding like The Smiths with extra Mellotron; and ʽShe's Still Sufferingʼ, with the biggest wall-of-sound on the album, largely due to the overpowering drums and the keyboards and vocal harmonies now completely taking over the guitars — with wave-like / veil-like psychedelic textures that sound like My Bloody Valentine with keyboards.
Sorry, that might just be one too many references out there, but this is also what constitutes the record's problem — it brings on too many outside associations instead of focusing squarely on Mr. McCombs and his own distillation of reality. Where A had the balance just right, on PREfection he sometimes ends up lost in his own songs, trying, perhaps, too hard to gain respect as a musician at the expense of standing his own ground as an artist. Oh, and one obvious influence I still have to mention (sorry) is Wilco — that mix of surrealist electronics with a country-pop sensibility that was so lauded in the case of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is evidently inspiring the introductions to ʽSacred Heartʼ and ʽAll Your Dreams May Come Trueʼ, the latter of which melodically sounds inspired by ʽThings We Said Todayʼ. Okay, I'll shut up now.
I like each of these songs — am not enthralled by any of them, but they're tasteful, original, and deep enough to earn an unquestionable thumbs up. But I guess they also illustrate how doggone hard it is for an obviously talented artist to make a mind-blowing record in the 21st century, and, perhaps, explain why for so many talented artists of the 21st century their first album turns out to be their best — it is the one album that comes to them totally naturally; as they begin to force themselves to come up with something that expands on the beginnings, though, they immediately fall upon well-trodden paths and become less «themselves» and more of a pale mix of themselves with somebody else. Still, let us not allow too much theorizing to distract us from the simple melancholic beauty of ʽCuckooʼ or the grandiose scope of ʽCity Of Brotherly Loveʼ (a song where I do not understand even a single line, except for "yes I've read my Plato, too", which, however, does not make life for you any better even if you've also read your Plato).
On a final note, be sure to turn your player off right at the end of the musical part of ʽAll Your Dreamsʼ, because, as a bonus, you get six minutes of street noises dominated by a car siren that will not go off. Apparently, six minutes of a car siren making hell in the middle of a busy street is supposed to symbolize something, and you are welcome to spend the rest of your life decoding that symbolism, or debating the issue of whether you are more partial to dumb artists or intelligent artists... and thinking about the thin line that separates ones from others.