Though Alt-Country has exponentially grown in popularity over the last several decades, it has rarely seen artists capable of pushing its boundaries while remaining decidedly within them. Even the very avant leanings of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, generally regarded as the sub-genre’s creative apex, has been accused of representing more the preternatural evolution and singular ingenuity of Jeff Tweedy and Co. than an artistic thrust typical of the grouping as a whole. This lack of a bona fide yet stereotypical success story has left a void that Cass McCombs – a nomadic folk, rock, punk hodgepodge of a singer/songwriter – is steadily moving towards filling.
Working within Alt-Country’s relatively lax confines of unpretentious poeticism, McCombs has been effective at weaving his own musical voice with clusters of extraneous instrumental arrangements. With the addition of recent minimalist entry Humor Risk – an eight-song endeavor with a closer focus on integrating rhythmic minimalism and instrumental miscellanea than any of his previous six releases – he has certainly solidified that voice, if modestly; and while the record’s hypnotic, threadbare ambiance has had an overt influence on the rest of his live repertoire, the antithetically solid execution he wrangles out of his backing band further illuminates McCombs as a strong candidate for one of the most subtly brilliant avant-garde and reductionist artists making music today.
Even though his performance at One Eyed Jacks on Monday night spanned the better part of his ten-year recording career, the material played less like a run-through of his ever-finely evolving personal style than a uniformly glossed and altered collection akin to a mystifying Shoegaze/Americana amalgam. Anchored by a rhythm section that deftly brought McCombs’ already down-tempo songs to a delicate, metronomic lull and held them almost indefinitely static, the remaining three members fused intricate streaks of feedback and twang creating candidly cogent suites that felt like serene mini-eternities. But at the forefront of the set, bowling over even his compelling Cris Kirkwood-esque vocal delivery, was McCombs’ demure adherence to fine-grained, slowly churning rhythm and his supporting cast’s pronounced restraint.
Cass McCombs may not have taken apart Americana’s established canvas and reversed or subverted listeners’ expectations of the genre (as a self-proclaimed avant-garde or deconstructionist artist would predictably tend to do), but his approach and demeanor towards it are undoubtedly curious. That curiousness, added to his distinct manner of live execution, is arguably what has enabled McCombs’ music to fit comfortably (if somewhat superficially) in the same stylistic stable as his Americana contemporaries while having more spiritually (if less obviously) in common with My Bloody Valentine or Ride – ultimately less a of “deconstruction” than an outright switcheroo.