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review: Cass McCombs’ expansive, brilliant new album ‘Tip of the Sphere’

Cass McCombs Tip of the Sphere

The Grateful Dead’s influence on indie rock is still a relatively new thing. A small number of rebellious artists have sung their praises for decades, but the Dead were still often a taboo in the indie rock world, a representation of the hippie ideals and overblown jams that punk (and, by extension, indie rock) were railing against from the start… even though the anti-establishment and anti-mainstream-music ideals of both groups were always likeminded. The bubble of indie Deadheads finally burst when The National spearheaded the 4AD-released tribute album Days of the Dead, which was basically a who’s who of indie, from vets like Stephen Malkmus, Lee Ranaldo and Ira Kaplan to some of the biggest indie acts of today like The War On Drugs, Sharon Van Etten, Courtney Barnett, Angel Olsen, and over 50 others. Day of the Dead might’ve seemed like the nail in the coffin for indie rock’s Grateful Dead obsession, but it ended up being more like the tip of the iceberg. The band’s influence is more widespread within indie rock than ever, and this is a very exciting thing. Indie bands have always come up with great music by repurposing sounds of the past and making fresh, modern music with them — be it Brian Wilson’s whimsical pop or David Bowie and David Byrne’s brainy art rock or Joni Mitchell’s glistening folk — and it makes sense that this world of music fans gets excited about that. “Indie” fans and record collectors are often one in the same, and we love to hear references to the records in our collection pop up in new and exciting ways. The Dead gives indie rockers a very wide palette of sounds to pull from, and even if these are all sounds that true Deadheads have long been familiar with, they sound new again in the context of indie rock, where they’ve popped up much more rarely than they have in the jam band scene.

And while more and more indie artists are embracing their inner Dead fandom, none have done it more directly than Day of the Dead contributor Cass McCombs has on his brilliant new album Tip of the Sphere. It’s the followup to 2016’s Mangy Love, which was a high point of Cass’ very prolific, consistently great career, and though early singles like “Sleeping Volcanoes” suggested a continuation of Mangy Love, most of the album sees Cass taking a giant leap forward. He has fully figured out how to reference some of the deepest corners of the Grateful Dead’s sound, while writing music that sounds new and exciting and accessible to the average indie rock fan. That’s no small feat.

Tip of the Sphere stands in stark contrast to what you might think of as “jam band” music, because Cass really taps into the sounds of the Grateful Dead studio albums. He’s not afraid to flex his jam muscles (one of the best songs on the album is over 10 minutes and full of guitar solos), but that’s not where the main influence is coming from. He clearly recognizes the Dead were not just great jammers but great songwriters and studio wizards, and this album carries the torch for their legacy as a studio band, while also covering enough other ground to not sound like an imitation. The closest comparison I can think of would be Kurt Vile, who nailed a mix of indie rock songwriting and meandering jams on 2013’s Wakin On A Pretty Daze and last year’s Bottle It In — and fans of those albums definitely need to hear Tip of the Sphere — but Cass’ take on this sound is entirely his own.

The album’s bookended by the two most Dead-like songs, the seven-and-a-half minute opener “I Followed the River South to What” and the ten-minute closer “Rounder,” the latter of which is one of the album’s strongest songs. There’s a real late ’70s studio Dead vibe to these; the guitar and production style of Terrapin Station feels like a strong influence here, and there’s a little of Shakedown Street‘s rhythm on “Rounder.” Cass also approaches country twang in a very Jerry Garcia-like way on “Prayer For Another Day,” and he gets into an addictive, psychedelic groove on the major highlight “Sidewalk Bop After Suicide,” which is the kind of song that could’ve fit on Jerry’s first solo album. It’s a thrill to hear this kind of stuff worked into the context of modern music, especially when an artist is as good at putting their own spin on things as Cass is. Listening to Tip of the Sphere never feels like listening to a Grateful Dead album; in fact, it always feels distinctly like listening to a Cass McCombs album. He’s developed his own sound over the years, and his voice is unmistakable, and both of those things are clear on Tip of the Sphere. He pulls in some pretty noticeable outside influences, but he’s still working within the world of music that he himself created.

Cass also dips his toes into plenty of non-Grateful Dead-like sounds as well. “Estrella” is a tribute to Latino artist Juan Gabriel, and Cass sings partially in Spanish on the song. “The Great Pixley Train Robbery” is bluesy hard rock with an indie twist, the kind of thing you could picture PJ Harvey or Cat Power doing, but here presented in the trademark style of Cass McCombs. “American Canyon Sutra” marries modern electronics to the kind of spoken-word desert acid trip that Jim Morrison used to go on, but without Morrison’s god complex poetry. (No shade, just saying.) And as ever, Cass is not just a great interpreter of his influences but a great songwriter in his own right. He’s got a way of crafting melodies that sound at once familiar and unpredictable, easy to listen to but not “easy listening.” He’s also a keen lyricist, one who can go from poetic (“I Followed The River South To What”) to storytelling (“The Great Pixley Train Robbery”) to desperate and political (“Sleeping Volcanoes”) to casually conversational (“Tying Up Loose Ends”) and beyond. There’s a real depth to those songs, but they don’t always reveal themselves right away. Tip of the Sphere really takes a few listens to settle in, and once it’s drilled its way into your brain, it stays there.

It’s a testament to Cass’ strengths as a songwriter that Tip of the Sphere not only stands apart from its decades- and sometimes centuries-old influences, but from the rest of Cass’ discography. He’s released a lot of music in his 15+ year career, a lot of it very good and very highly praised, yet there’s no shadow looming over Tip of the Sphere. Cass keeps moving forward at such a natural rate, and each new album feels like one piece of the same bigger puzzle, with nods back to his earlier work as well as several steps forward. Tip of the Sphere is as fine an entry point into Cass’ career as any. Not many artists can say that nine albums in.

Tip of the Sphere comes out this Friday (2/8) via ANTI- Records. Until then, you can stream the whole album at NPR and listen to four songs below. Also, catch Cass on tour.

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UPDATE: Stream the album here:

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