Cass McCombs is walking down an alleyway and he finds a dead girl naked inside an icebox. He walks on, through black clouds of exhaust, past a dry cleaners and finds Brigid, who’s straddling a heater to keep warm. They drink green tea and contemplate evil before saying goodnight.
That’s a summary of ‘In A Chinese Alley’, one of 12 songs on the cult Californian’s ninth album ‘Mangy Love’, a record that captivates like a Hollywood classic and takes your mind hostage like a favourite novel. This gnarly, nomadic songwriter has honed his grubby poetry over the 13 years since debut album ‘A’, and he continues to combine it with humour, surreal imagery and deeply melodic folk-rock here.
His goal, as always, is to expose the ugliness of mankind. In a year of bloody headlines, the harsher moments on ‘Mangy Love’ land heavily. Looped around a classic, sun-baked McCombs melody, ‘Bum Bum Bum’ observes “we’re all at war” before asking “how long before this river of blood congeals?”. ‘Run Sister Run’ attacks misogyny in America’s justice system over funky guitars and percussion just as choppy as McCombs’ spat-out vocal. The more psychedelic ‘It’ sagely reels through McCombs’ mantras, including “It is not peace / When others are in pain”, with operatic backing from singer HOOPS.
There’s room for tenderness too. It’s most blatant during ‘Switch’’s jangly groove (“Turn you on, you light up the room / Turn you off, it’s dark as a tomb”), but it’s there in ‘Medusa’s Outhouse’ (which imagines dancing and music kissing), scuzzy love song ‘Rancid Girl’ and the magnificent ‘Low Flyin’ Bird’, which implores the titular creature not to scrape its beak. ‘Opposite House’, the album’s dreamy peak, features vocals from Angel Olsen and sees McCombs struggling with his home turning topsy turvy (“The ceiling’s on the floor / Floor’s in the refrigerator”).
But ‘Mangy Love’ would succeed even without lyrics. Produced leisurely with Rob Schnapf (Elliott Smith) and Dan Horne and featuring 21 extra musicians, this is McCombs’ richest ever recording. Sublime flourishes abound: fluttering piano on ‘Low Flyin’ Bird’, brass on ‘Laughter Is The Best Medicine’, ‘Cry’’s bassline and countless McCombs solos. This is another classic McCombs album – get it and it’ll stay under your skin forever.
- Record label: Anti
- Release date: 26 Aug, 2016