Cass McCombs – ‘A Folk Set Apart: B-sides, Rarities & Space Junk, ETC’

This sprawling collection is a murky entry point into a fascinating career

Cass McCombs released ‘I Cannot Lie’ on seven-inch vinyl in 2003; on the sleeve was a close-up photograph of a bare foot stood on dusty ground. The big toenail was yellowing. The 38-year-old Californian has made seven albums since – this 19-track compilation of rarities and unreleased tracks is his eighth – but that gnarled foot is still a decent representation of him and his music. ‘I Cannot Lie”s scuffed tune finds Cass neatly summing up his craft (“I fancied myself a poet today”) and is a fitting entry point to ‘A Folk Set Apart: Rarities, B-Sides & Space Junk, ETC’.

Cass isn’t a poet in a highbrow sense; he’s a wanderer with no fixed abode who writes songs. He’s spent his adult life washing up in different parts of the world, soaking in people, cultures, religions and various vices and turning his experiences into some of the finest, crustiest rock songwriting of the last 20 years. You imagine his feet must be pretty mangled by now.

As he’s matured, his songs have morphed from the punky noise of 2003 4AD debut ‘A’, through slow-burning folk (2011’s ‘Wit’s End, which contained the resplendent ‘County Line’, one of his finest songs) and landed at the folk ‘n’ roll hotchpotch of 2013’s excellent ‘Big Wheel And Others’. On the surface, there’s not much separating him from, say, Kurt Vile, but Cass’ success (not that he’d ever call it that) will always be tempered by his mistrust of exposure, his desire to remain an outsider. He exists in the gutter, the same space as something you might step in. You get the feeling that whatever he’s seeking to extract from writing, recording and releasing his songs has nothing to do with the rewards many of his peers sign up for. Even the title of this album is off-putting.

His quest for meaning permeates all his records, and ‘A Folk Set…’ is no different. ‘AYD’ has him singing confusedly about the days of the week and birdsong before revealing, “Don’t you know I cannot get away/I’m here at your disposal” over dirty instrumentation. On the slow waltz of ‘Twins’, recorded while living in London in 2009, he sounds desperate: “You lied to me and I to you/I guess we deserve each other/Though I’m damned if we do”. 2011 single ‘Bradley Manning’ was written about the titular American soldier and trans woman – who changed her name to Chelsea in 2013 – sentenced for distributing confidential information to WikiLeaks. Its lyrics are the most uncompromising here, with Cass describing how Manning was bullied before addressing his subject directly: “Bradley, know you have friends, though you’re locked in there”. He’s writing about a national news story, but the sense of justice and outlaw spirit relate directly back to him.

Mostly though, ‘A Folk Set…’ serves to chart the changing texture of his music. It’s nowhere near his best work – it’s clear why tracks like ‘Oatmeal’ and ‘Catacombs Cow Cow Boogie’ didn’t make his albums – but Cass McCombs’ cutting room floor is grimier than most, and this record is a consistently intriguing portrait of the odds and sods of a fascinating career. Listen to it, then buy his entire back catalogue.