Made over 10 days in Brooklyn, Tip of the Sphere is Cass McCombs 9th album in nearly 20 years. During this time, his sound has changed but kept him firmly in folks warm cosy arms. McCombs has become somewhat of his own legend. A prolific songwriter who releases albums, appears on Ellen and then fades into the midst. A Californian that sounds less like sun and sea and more like the Pacific Northwest. Rugged, natural and sometimes dreary. And being an artist before being a celebrity makes him something of a novelty.
The vaguely psychedelic album is heavier than other albums while maintaining an overall chill vibe. The introduction of beat machines and synth evolve his sound, resulting in a mishmash of sounds. And maybe this is the intended feel for an album that, from an artist who is known for his strong political views, could be held as a mirror to the current turbulent nature of the world and it’s politics.
With hauntingly jaunty piano, lamenting sax and plod-along drums, “Absentee” is a psychedelic folk track that removes the mind from the body. Like many of McCombs tracks, it speaks to society and its problems, promoting the need for involvement and community within society. Unlike other socially charged singer-songwriters, McCombs is consistently objective and the song itself is a indictment of human interaction and involvement. McCombs dream-like voice feigns happiness, an auditory representation of the blindly led, like the valium-taking middle-class Stepford Wives.
Concepts of power and forms of power are never far from McCombs thoughts. He constantly questions the world and it’s concepts. “Prayer for Another Day” keeps it simple and wishes for tomorrow to be a better day. With Hawaiian beach vibes and a brain vibrating bass, this track follows on from “Absentee” and questions how we all fit into our own world and the power we have to shape it. In the end, this chill track suggests that wishing for tomorrow to be a better may be the best we can do.
“The Great Pixley Train Robbery” is about a real train heist and true to McCombs normal writing form, is written as one of the men involved in the heist. Reminiscent of Loudon Wainwright III’s uncanny ability to make lyrics and a guitar sound dramatic, this track is strongly cinematic. Pushing images of a Wild West Ocean’s 11 to the foreground, this track, along with driving guitar and “Rocketman”-like piano this track is 4 mins of pure and unadulterated escapism.
Ending on a strong note is always advisable but ending on the best track of the album is even better. “Rounder” is a 10 min audio odyssey that sounds like early Aimee Mann and the Grateful Dead got together and had an intelligent jam-band of a track. While jam-band may not seem like the most affectionate term, it’s 7 minute-ish instrumental feels raw and organic with a settled backing keeping it together.
Tip of the Sphere is an excellent work of intimate storytelling. Expanding on his regular sounds, McCombs doesn’t repeat past sounds or themes and has created a truly cinematic album. An instinctual artist and an instinctual album that makes it nearly impossible to place him into a specific genre but easy to place in the history of music.