Cass McCombs live Doug Fir Lounge Portland, OR 08.20.2005

Cass McCombs live Doug Fir Lounge Portland, OR 08.20.2005

Cass McCombs/The Decemberists
Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel
Providence, RI

Cass McCombs’ timeless, unassuming songs and warm, humble demeanor were somewhat lost in the cavernous, imposing primness of Lupo’s. Why then did his songs play so much better than the Decemberists’ self-conscious, sometimes awkwardly formal song cycles?

For one thing, Cass’ songs of love and loss were accentuated and answered by the echoing, tumbledown openness of the club space itself. It’s a little bit lost, is Lupo’s. Despite a new coat of paint and some attempts at modernizing the place, it’s at heart an old theatre from a forgotten era. It had been shut for a number of years before Lupo’s moved in and gussied it up, and even today you can still see the unvarnished, humble backstage area in the wings, probably unchanged since the theatre was built in 1916.

McComb’s inward-looking, Hopperesque slices of Americana —tales of heartbreak and loss, buried under a self-effacement that would seem a little pathological if not balanced by the tonal clarity and melodic simplicity of his music— were a perfect fit for the bruised, slightly battered but regal space. Accompanied by an additional guitarist and a multi-instrumentalist who also traded deft harmonies with Cass, the songs were starker-sounding than on record but by no means dimmed. There’s a tenacious kernel of hopefulness at the center of these songs that saves them from becoming bleak —from the mournful, nostalgic “Mother and Father” (“Library doors are locked/You wait for day”) to the hazy, romantic urgency of “Sacred Heart” which brings to mind Strangeways-era Smiths. Leavened by a gentle wryness and gorgeous, airy harmonies, his music won the crowd over, slowly but surely.

By stark contrast, the Decemberists’ songs seemed both overstuffed and emotionally monotone. They were trying too hard, and it showed.

At the risk of being misinterpreted, I think they’re a band that is too damn smart for their own good. It’s not that I’m arguing for some sort-of “dumbing down” of rock music, or saying that the music of the Decemberists fails to engage because of its very cleverness. I appreciate the care that goes into their songs. I admire the craft of Colin Meloy’s literate, thoughtful songwriting. That said, I don’t feel as though music and lyrics add up to as much as they should. There’s a hint of smugness in Meloy’s self-presentation —a self-consciousness— that grates. The coolly detached formality of his songwriting sits awkwardly at odds with the dramatic, often raucous vibrancy of the music. The band isn’t afraid to let go, but Meloy is, and the group as a whole suffers for it. Even the addition of Petra Haden (late of that dog.) to the touring band failed to loosen Meloy’s somewhat starched reserve. But then, even if it their set failed to engage me emotionally or viscerally, the crowd —comprised of the most beaming, optimistic, utterly wholesome group of kids I’ve ever seen at a show— looked fully enraptured. I felt almost guilty for harboring unkind thoughts for their beloved bandleader. But nottoo guilty.

Decemberists merch is singularly pretty though. I nearly bought a poster before I realized with a start that I couldn’t possibly hang a Decemberists poster on my wall when they irritated me that much. It’d be …wrong.

But damn, it was pretty.


MP3Cass McCombs, “Sacred Heart”

For more information on Cass McCombs, visit his official site or that of his record labels, 4AD andMonitor. You can also add him on Myspace!