The trick that Cass McCombs turns on "County Line," the first track from his 2011 album Wit's End, is the sort of sleight-of-hand that most songwriters spend careers seeking: writing a song that sounds familiar without having the result also sound derivative.
A haunting air of nostalgia permeates the song, abetted by warm Hammond organ tones but driven by the sense that you're seeing yourself in someone else's story. In this case, that recognition comes not from McCombs' words but through his wounded and weary voice. He navigates the song's sketched-out narrative of returning to a once-familiar place with methodical patience and distance, conveying a panoply of conflicting emotions without getting too emotional himself.
Last year, McCombs released two full-lengths—Wit's End in April, followed by Humor Risk in November. Wit's End is decidedly more arranged and produced, while Humor Risk is the looser, more rock-oriented of the two. Remarkably, McCombs filled both with some of the best songs of his decade-long career, with "County Line" counting as his crowning achievement. But beyond "County Line" or even releasing two acclaimed LPs in one year, what's most notable about Cass McCombs' 2011 is that it marks the point in his career when he discovered and consistently delivered his own voice.
To be clear, McCombs' abilities as a thoughtful, crafty songwriter have long been clear. Even going back to his debut EP, 2003's Not the Way, McCombs' stylistic abilities made him stand out in a world where lots of bands were too busy deciding whether to rip off The Strokes or Gang of Four to write songs this strong. (That said, in retrospect, it's possible to think of McCombs' first full-length, A, as the work of a more idiosyncratic and esoteric Julian Casablancas.) Early in his career, McCombs mostly resembled Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon frontman Mark Kozelek, especially in his patient vocal delivery. A burgeoning fondness for decidedly slower tempos made that connection to Kozelek even more obvious, though McCombs didn't shy away from writing indie-rock-friendly near-jangles, either, as with the (slightly) higher BPMs of PREfection's "Equinox" or Dropping the Writ's "Crick in My Neck." These follow-up albums also introduced a tendency for McCombs to ape a bevy of notable '70s bandleader-gone-singer-songwriter types, most often John Lennon and Lou Reed. On 2009's Catacombs, McCombs extended his stylistic reach to include pre-Beatles pop stars like Buddy Holly and The Everly Brothers. Those records, however accomplished, seemed like dressing rooms for new suits of sound.
What separates McCombs' newest albums from his earlier work is his ability to better synthesize all the genre exercises and inadvertent similarities into a more refined and distinct persona. If there's an artist who McCombs most resembles nowadays, it's Bill Callahan, the former catch-as-catch-can lo-fi impresario primarily known, between 1990 and 2005, as Smog. His "solo" career finds him releasing stately and majestic testaments to his songwriting prowess, slowly refining his craft. After a decade, McCombs, like Callahan, only shows signs of better things. Sure, you'd have to have never heard The Velvet Underground or their descendents to not hear their echo in Humor Risk's "Love Thine Enemy," but it sounds, finally, like a Cass McCombs song. The same goes for the baroque-pop mien of Wit's End's "Buried Alive" and the glam-like stomp of Risk's "Mystery Mail." McCombs' two 2011 albums are distinct enough to be readily differentiable. Regardless of which you prefer or choose, there's no mistaking who it is behind the microphone.