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A little less a set of songs and more the spirit of a warm, smoke-shrouded Sunday afternoon spent somewhere in a generously upholstered chair, Tip of the Sphere arrives three years after singer/songwriter Cass McCombs' first Top 40 independent album, 2016's Mangy Love. Definitely not shooting for the charts here -- not that he ever was -- the album places McCombs' often sharp, sometimes meandering or halted ruminations in a context of a cosmic folk with sleepy '70s album rock inspirations. Musically as well as lyrically lost in thought for most of its playing time of nearly an hour, Tip of the Sphere opens with "I Followed the River South to What," a drifting, seven-and-a-half-minute track that hovers over a single chord. That's not to say the album suffers from sameness; the ever-shifting "Estrella," for example, soon provides modal contrast without harshing the record's mellow. Later, the livelier, steady bounce of "Sleeping Volcanoes" offers a refresher midway through while lyrics address our imminent destruction. Like the rest of Tip of the Sphere, the song takes interest in contemporary American society and the despondency of the common man, in this case with phrases like "we're the refugees" and "home of the fake." McCombs is always one to include a provocative outlier, and here it's the mostly spoken-word track "American Canyon Sutra." Suggesting hip-hop with a minimal beat, a certain lyrical flow, and guitar and keyboard samples, its anxious patter touches on personal isolation, classism, institutional racism, and capitalism, equating cash to trash by explicit rhyme. While the album is his most musically rambling yet, with the exception of "American Canyon Sutra," there's no denying its elegant musicianship, which includes a steady backing band of jazz keyboardist Frank LoCrasto (Okkervil River, Parquet Courts), drummer Otto Hauser (The War on Drugs, Vetiver), and McCombs' Skiffle Players bandmate Dan Horne (also of Circles Around the Sun) on bass. Among the less-frequent guests are guitarist Dan Iead (Norah Jones, Kevin Morby) and the album's engineer, Sam Owens, who records his own hazy, '70s-inspired folk-rock as Sam Evian. The album is bookended by its longest tracks, with the ten-minute "Rounder" closing out the proceedings with steady drums, LoCastro's Fender Rhodes, Iead's pedal steel, and McCombs' gentle, prolonged guitar riffing. While a potential gem for certain Grateful Dead-philes and possibly off-putting to some even well-established fans, the album's diversions, textures, and McCombs' particular way with words should appeal to more than merely the Garcia set.
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