Singer-songwriter Cass McCombs is back with his second LP this year: Humor Risk (Domino Records). The album is just as subdued as April 2011's Wit's End, as both toy with somber lyrics and heavy messages. The new album, however, flirts with a more upbeat Americana-folk style contrary to the drawn-out melodies of the previous album, Wit's End.
The album's name, when said quickly, lends itself to "humoresque," a romantic style of music that's often short and whimsical. McCombs's website states, "Humor Risk is an attempt at laughter instead of confusion, chaos instead of morality." Whimsical and comical might not be the first words that come to mind after a few runs through the album, but compared to Wit's End, the heavy and hard-hitting lyrics find themselves accompanied by more upbeat and driven rhythms and harmonies.
McCombs introduces Humor Risk with "Love Thine Enemy," a song driven by repetitive electric chords and percussion. Of course, McCombs sticks to his heart-throbbing lyrics while incessantly repeating the song title. He pours his message into listeners' heads: "Love thine enemy but hate their lack of sincerity."
Once the song gets too repetitive, McCombs switches to an instrumental break with a quiet, humming lead guitar melody above the still-repetitive guitar rhythm. "Love Thine Enemy" sounds like a "Laguna Beach" montage or a Target commercial next to the singer's more emotionally driven and instrumentally elaborate songs like "County Line" on Wit's End.
"Robin Egg Blue" is another upbeat number with an acoustic twist in which McCombs conveys a spiritual message. Similar to "Robin" is "Meet Me at the Mannequin Gallery," which features heavier percussion. The two songs could be something off The Shins' Wincing the Night Away with their more concrete percussion and upbeat rhythm, while remaining relaxed and rich.
Except for "To Every Man His Chimera" and "Mariah," much of the album follows along the lines of the opener in terms of rhythm, triteness and use of electric guitars and synthesizers. McCombs's familiar style, however, comes through in these songs via his minimalist instrumentalism and droning lyricism.
In "Chimera," listeners become familiarized, once again, with somber lyrics reminiscent of Wit's End – "not you again, I thought you'd died/ I thought you were killed on your wedding night," – and listeners become accustomed to the continuous drawl of a guitar and minimal use of percussion. All of this comes together to form a funeral march topped by McCombs' yearning voice as he cautiously sings, "Everyone I know gossips endlessly/ Everyone I know suffers just like me."
McCombs closes the album with "Mariah," a song that gives the illusion of being a raw demo tape. The song, in all of its seemingly unfinished glory, is beautifully prepared for fans of the mellow Americana folk band Peter and the Wolf or the late Elliot Smith. McCombs' voice is muffled above the sweet hum of the electric guitar as he sings, "Brimming with desire, Mariah/ Eager, burning tears from 30,000 years/ Welling up inside her." McCombs' choice of closing reflects upon him as a musician and his emphasis on lyrics rather than composition.