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.
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.