California singer-songwriter Cass McCombs has built up a weird body of online apocrypha, which hobbles that whole process of consulting the Internet to figure out how to appreciate music. Go ahead and dig for context, but you may find yourself grumbling over his slippery answers to interview questions as you stare at a photo of him looking glum in suspenders. He's screwing with people's heads, intentionally or not. He doesn't give away much about his songs, and generally abandons the listener to gradually simmer in his work.
What's true of his publicity is true of his music: Sometimes it's hard to tell whether he's joking. Humor Risk, one of two albums McCombs released in 2011, includes the eight-minute crime caper "Mystery Mail," which jauntily rocks through lines like "I'll never make it out of this cell/I guess the next time I'll see you I will be in hell." "Deseret," from 2008's Dropping the Writ, sets vocal harmonies and slow guitar arpeggios into a worshipful mood, but it has the line "onward Christian songwriter," as if McCombs is poking fun at his own reverie.
Despite the murky image, and the tendency to blur what people call "folk" into a personal and eccentric range of sounds, he eventually lands pretty close to a good-natured offhandedness, like that of Philadelphia songwriter Kurt Vile. On Dropping the Writ's "Pregnant Pause," McCombs is sly crooning in falsetto about a quiet, private scene between two people. On 2009's Catacombs, McCombs and his fellow players perform a lighthearted slow dance on "Prima Donna."
But watch out. McCombs follows that track by striking up the grim waltz "You Saved My Life," singing of "blood to gulp and flesh to eat."
Still, it may be best not to puzzle too much over this music. With Cass McCombs, that eerie feeling of being led can be its own reward.