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Skiffle Players is a ragtag outfit featuring Cass McCombs alongside members of Circles Around the Sun and the faded alt-country group Beachwood Sparks. Their enjoyably low-stakes debut LP captures the liberal, halfway-stoned spirit that’s demanded of musicians past thirty living in California.
In September 2013, at the excellently named Mollusk Big Sur Jamboree, folk songwriter Cass McCombs played a one-off show with a ragtag outfit assembled from jam-rockers Circles Around the Sun and faded alt-country group Beachwood Sparks. Dubbed the McCombs Skiffle Players, the band playfully alloyed backwoods folk, lap-steel-infused country, and elaborate West Coast jams. The songs sprawled, the band clicked, and more shows followed, at some length. A 12-track set bootlegged last year clocked in at 100 minutes, and their debut LP, though half as long, captures the liberal, halfway-stoned spirit that’s demanded of musicians past thirty living in California.
Skifflin’, an enjoyably low-stakes release, feels less like McCombs’ next frontier in tackling the Great American Folk Album than a leisurely sojourn. (Given the group’s colorful press statement–”Peace to the spirits of the musicians who came before us and taught us the secret esoteric ways of skiffle!”–you sense an easy pace suits the rest of the band just fine.) McCombs has never been a predictable songwriter, but Skifflin’ frees him to explore pockets of early American innovation beyond the scope of his pared-back solo work. There’s a shamanistic dirge (“Skiffle Paperclip When Science Evolves”), a quirky jam interrupted by studio in-jokes (“Skiffle Strut”), two faithful trad-folk covers (“Omie Wise” and “Coo Coo Bird”), and a wild freight-train skiffle called “Railroadin’ Some,” narrated by an unhinged conductor who hollers myriad place names yet can’t seem to settle on a destination.
Perhaps thanks to his peripatetic disposition, McCombs has a knack for silently invoking a character’s withheld details; he can be laconic, teasing, and morbid, sometimes simultaneously. Dreamy ballad “Always,” the first immediately McCombsian song here, complicates honey-sweet lyrics with an undertone of ambiguous resignation. “All the way to your room/ Rising like a lost balloon … All the way until the end/ You are my lover and my friend,” he murmurs, before closing on a couplet that inexplicably haunts: “No one could ever say/ We didn’t take it all the way.” “When the Title Was Wrote” is a perkier take on the McCombs staple, but it’s just as crafty. “Buddha is crucified/ Another misquote,” he sings, a loaded riddle that is conspicuous on a record concerned with the interpretation and ownership of American tradition.
McCombs describes songwriting as a process of “uncovering” ancient song forms: Folk melodies and themes, he says, are couched in our cultural fabric, waiting to be found. You see something of that worldview in the detached way he observes his characters, as if wary of imposing his truth on theirs—a wilful outsider, even in worlds of his own creation. It makes sense, then, that on Skifflin’’s pair of folk standards—”Coo Coo Bird” (aka “The Cuckoo”) and the murder ballad “Omie Wise”—he is in his element, inhabiting stories that have gone full circle, unearthed long ago from the cultural imagination and since returned to the realm of mythology. Skifflin’ is full of seemingly aimless excursions, but McCombs, far from needing direction, is just finding something larger than himself to get lost in.
Cass McCombs – Guitar, vocals.
Farmer Dave Scher – Keyboards, lap steel guitar, melodica, vocals
Neal Casal – Guitar, vocals
Dan Horne – Bass
Aaron Sperske – Drums and percussion