CD: Cass McCombs - Tip of the Sphere The cranky Californian is back with his best album yet

From The Arts Desk

Tip of the Sphere is a freewheeling blend of vintage sounds that evokes San Francisco in the early Seventies. To fans this will come as little surprise. McCombs has been moving in this direction for a while, and his new album draws heavily on his earlier work. There's a some of the intimacy of Wit's End and a lot of the prettiness of Catacombs. More than anything, the singer takes what he did with his last LP, Mangy Love, and makes it all a little better.

The opener starts with a looping psychedelic riff reminiscent of early Tim Buckley. Over the next few tracks we hear hints of the Grateful Dead, and Gram Parsons, all served up with shovelfuls of prog and country. The closer you listen, the more depth you discover. Tinkling pianos jockey for position with stabs of jazz-flute, tabla drums and acoustic guitars. But while the musical atmosphere sounds free-form, much of it is actually executed with great precision. McCombs' guitar has never sounded so subtle. The way he weaves around it his vocal lines is often exquisite.

Unsurprisingly, given the soundscape, McCombs' lyrics tend towards the abstract. There's real poetry in lines like "Take from the body its shiver", and "You laughed like the wind was nothing." And yet, some of the best stuff is actually the easiest to decipher. Like "The Great Pixley Train Robbery", a rip-roaring account of a 19th-century train heist.

Elsewhere the singer demonstrates admirable empathy while remaining, as ever, a little cynical. Only once does his cynicism misfire: "American Canyon Sutra" tells of the garbage dump where McCombs played as a child and how it got turned into a Walmart. By delivering the lyrics as a Jim Morrison-style spoken-word piece accompanied by a drum machine, the track sounds disappointingly like a piece of a fringe beat poetry.

Things rapidly return to form. "Tying up Loose Ends", a gentle alt-country piece looking back on the narrator's life, is a real highlight. Then we get to the album's finale - ten-minutes of sweet, improvised rock in the form of "Rounder". If it's about anything, it's about a cranky middle-aged man's sense of hope and love. In a way the song sums up the album, and why it feels so authentic. Unlike many latter-day hippy-rockers there's nothing contrived or trendy about McCombs. And on Tip of the Sphere, he's never sounded more like the real deal.

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