Because everyone can theoretically sing but not everyone knows how to write songs, solo singer-songwriters tend to live or die by their compositions. Cass McCombs perverts this idea by making his songs difficult to understand, and it goes further than his rumored policy of providing transcripts of his lyrics only to those who mail him self-addressed and stamped envelopes.
On his third album, he bathes his swooning vocals in reverb and sometimes double-tracks them as well. During the sing-songy “Windfall,” he appears to be auditioning for a job in Sigur Ros, with dramatic sighs and breathing sounds. Album closer “Wheel of Fortune” itself closes with whoops, gulps and hiccups. Of course, there are also words in these songs and, based on the occasional passage that breaks through the affectations, they sound interesting. “I was hard-pressed for action,” he sings on the record’s catchiest bit of pop, “That’s That,” and later this action takes the form of “cleaning toilets at a bar in Baltimore.” Even his effusions are compelling. In the middle of the languid “Petrified Forest,” he lets loose with a string of cowboy-movie epithets (“Gol dangit, dag nabbit”) whose fey delivery contradicts his origin as a red-blooded American.
Set against inventive melodies and careful arrangements that betray an affinity for Britpop when it was the sound of young men flaunting their misanthropy, McCombs’ snippets of meaning become increasingly arresting. By playing hard to get, he renders his music irresistible.