When Cass McCombs started making records in the early 2000s, he was a woodsy abstractionist with an unabashed taste for classic rock, and he soon became a master of vernacular: John Lennon-ish balladry, droning indie-pop, baroque choral soul, ramshackle prog, and — especially — sad-dreamy folk-rock recalling Cali kin Neil Young and Elliott Smith. Fifteen years in, he remains a shapeshifter with excellent taste in shapes.
On Tip Of The Sphere, he summons yet another West Coast spirit: Jerry Garcia. As a head who followed the band in their final years, and who was bold enough to cover “Dark Star” on 2016’s Day Of The Dead tribute, McCombs brings a certain amount of authority to the ceremony. But he’s an economical guitarist, and the vibe here is mostly late-Seventies Dead, grooves more burbling than rushing. The opener “I Followed The River South To What” echoes the squishy, envelope-filter guitar voicings of innumerable “Scarlet Begonias/Fire On The Mountain” jams alongside Dan Horne’s paddleboat bass lines, while Dan Lead’s pedal steel on “Prayer For Another Day” and “Rounder” recalls Garcia’s decidedly un-Nashville style.
None of this should suggest the approach is overly derivative or slavish. To the contrary; and it takes balls and vision to revitalize these tropes. See “The Great Pixley Train Robbery,” which begins with an acoustic guitar flourish suggesting a Tommy outtake, then steps into the great 20th century tradition of the train song, following Robert Hunter and many before him. McCombs writes of a railroad heist that actually occurred a century ago in California, narrating it as a confession by a man hoping for closure if not redemption. “I swear before Notary,” he declares, “to make a clean breast/Of the whole thing,” before ripping into a swirling, multi-tracked guitar jam over a snaky Mars Hotel groove.
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Elsewhere, the matrix of influences shifts. “American Canyon Sutra” suggests Allen Ginsberg and Suicide’s Alan Vega, indicting Walmart culture over synth beats, electronic splats, and Funkadelic guitar noise. And “Sleeping Volcanoes” — certain to be referred to as “The Armageddon Song” — scrambles vintage tunecraft with evocations of refugees and class war, its romantic-apocalyptic reprise recalling, in an unnerving juxtapostion of real-world horror and pleasure-center popcraft, McCombs’ “Aids In Africa,” from his 2003 debut A. It’s deceptively chill music that, like most of McCombs work, honors the past while steeling itself for the future.