MYTH MAKER: Despite the musique concrète touches, Dropping the Writ is about McCombs’s gentle way with a well-turned melody.
With even Smog himself, Bill Callahan, releasing Woke on a Whaleheart (Drag City) under his given name, indiedom’s fetish for slapping band names on solo projects may be petering out. More singer-songwriters have noticed that you don’t need a “bandonym” (in critic Carl Wilson’s useful coinage) to wrap yourself in myth, as a glance at the photo of Joanna Newsom on the cover of her Ys (Drag City) proves, or at any stage supporting Devendra Banhart’s barefoot-at-the-free-festival shenanigans. Cass McCombs, staunchly homonymous since 2002’s Not the Way EP, takes a road less traveled. “Lionkiller,” the opener on Dropping the Writ (Domino), his third full-length, upends standard persona-building moves. “I was born in a hospital that was very clean and white,” he sings, over roiling madrigal rock. The closing lines (“Stick a needle in my eye/I’m middle class till the day I die”) state a refusal of pretense that pervades the entire disc.
This isn’t to say McCombs (who plays the Milky Way next Friday) and obscurantism are strangers. PREfection (2005, Monitor) buried his sturdy song forms and confident vocals under production that evoked Interpol rehearsing in a corrugated tin shack, and lyrics that tucked teasing shards of narrative between retreats into private significance (“Human skull, human skull, human skull”). Its sequel would appear to be like more of the same. The murky cover photo could have been shot through leftover Floyd gels, its only text the astrological symbol for Scorpio (McCombs’s sign, as “Lionkiller” informs us).
But what’s inside is his most accessible and accomplished piece of record making. McCombs, who now lives in Chicago, assembled Dropping the Writ in a modest Pasadena studio, joined by his sharpest rhythm sections. (Drummer Orpheo McCord has an especially close bond with his floor tom.) Despite musique concrète intros and drop-ins (“car alarm, an OCD infomercial,” runs one liner note), the main event is his gentle way with a well-turned melody: Simon could have penned “Windfall” for Garfunkel, and the pop-baroque vocal arrangement of “Deseret” poaches on Harper’s Bizarre/Free Design territory. With busy fingerpicking given a pulse by well-placed snare smacks, “Full Moon or Infinity” finds a balance between delicacy and force that many singer-songwriters spend decades trying to locate.
Despite its folkier profile, Dropping the Writ also revels in the affinity for all things Morrissey that was evident on PREfection’s “Subtraction,” a rhythmic variant on “You Can’t Hurry Love” via “This Charming Man.” This time out, “That’s That” bears less resemblance to the Snoop/R. Kelly hit of that name than to the Smiths’ “Half a Person,” as our hero takes a job “cleaning toilets/In a hotel in Baltimore” while tailing an unimpressed paramour. And in the six-minute closer, “Wheel of Fortune,” he yodels his end words (especially “fate”) in unashamed tribute to the Moz’s favorite trick for passing from verse to chorus.
The creepy but colloquial “Crick in My Neck” is a more original vocal tour de force. McCombs mimes self-inflicted whiplash with hesitant, half-spoken phrasing: “What’s that . . . what’s that sound behind my back?/‘Jesus,’ I said, ‘I gotta get out of here.’ ” There’s a ghost in his house, but unlike R. Dean Taylor’s or Band of Horses’, this spirit may not be just the memory of a lover. At such moments, it’s clear why McCombs doesn’t need to conjure a cloud of mystery around his persona: there’s already plenty in his songs.
CASS MCCOMBS + ARIEL PINK | Milky Way, 405 Centre St, Jamaica Plain | November 9 | 617.524.3740