Scene and Heard
Music News from the Baltimore-Washington Axis of Upheaval
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Though Cass McCombs' debut EP, Not the Way on Baltimore's Monitor Records, hits stores this week, the Northern California native recently completed working on his full-length debut, tentatively titled A and set for release later this year.
"I just got finished recording this full length about four days ago," McCombs says from his apartment in Washington Heights on the north end of Manhattan. The 25-year-old speaks with a hesitant voice, as though he'd prefer to be talking about anybody but himself, yet he uses this whispery instrument to disarming effect on Way. "I went out to San Francisco, and we recorded a bunch of stuff and remixed some other stuff. So I'm kind of sick of recording."
Luckily, he is going nowhere near a studio for the next few months. He starts a mini tour that brings him to the Talking Head Jan. 18, and in March, he tours to Austin, Texas, for the South By Southwest Music Festival and back to the East Coast with labelmates Oxes as his backing band.
McCombs is both an odd choice and a branching out for Monitor. What started with side projects and arty indie pop (Jeff Mueller, Sweeder, Ben Wheelcock's Eiffel Tower, Rachel's/Shipping News member Jason Noble's Per Mission), Monitor has honed itself into to a more specific imprint with Baltimore-based arty mettle (Oxes, Ink) and noisy ruckus (Bellini).
The label came across singer/songwriter McCombs through local musician Dave Heumann and the Anti-Folk nights at the Ottobar; McCombs dabbles closer to pastoral folk and damaged country rock. Recorded and played in San Francisco entirely by McCombs and the Paper Cuts' Jason Quever, Not the Way is as transfixing and tenebrous as a dilated pupil. Its six songs--the heavy-lidded strolling blues of "It's Getting Colder," the jaunty yet creepy title song--are lovely tapestries for McCombs' languid vocal curdle. It's also surprisingly cohesive instrumentally considering it was realized by McCombs and Quever--and that McCombs reports that the songs were put together on the fly.
"I try every different way that I can to write songs," McCombs says. "More times than any I'd say the music comes first. But orchestration and arrangement is pretty last minute. I never think about them when I'm writing."
Though McCombs' laconic vibe may recall any number of interview-shy progenitors--"Opium Flower" could be mistaken for Royal Trux on a clean day--he's most easily grouped with Bright Eyes' Connor Oberst, another precociously literary songwriter fond of wrapping world-weary tales in baroque settings.
McCombs was joined by a larger group of musician friends for his recent recording session, which he hopes will yield a bigger sounding full-length. Outside the upcoming tours and eventual release of his album, he's not entirely sure what the future holds in store. He's playing the year by ear.
"I want to go back west again," he says reluctantly when asked about his future plans. "I want to try to do a West Coast tour. But the weather is just--it's really hot out there."
When Oji Morris and Brian Pope lost their WEAA (88.9 FM) house-music show, Underground Experience, last January, it left the two DJs without the regular Saturday-night radio gig where they've volunteered for the past 11 years (No Cover, Feb. 27, 2002). Fortunately, 2002 ended up being a refreshingly fruitful year for the pair. They started playing clubs outside the Baltimore-Washington axis, reaching New York, New Jersey, and Chicago. Oji scored an underground house hit with "We Lift Our Hands in the Sanctuary," a 12-inch featuring vocalist Una that will be included on the February 2003 United DJs of America compilation mixed by Los Angeles' Marques Wyatt. And both Oji and Pope have full-length albums coming out this year on their own Poji Records imprint.
"We seemed to have migrated to D.C. officially," Oji says. "We haven't really worked parties in Baltimore other than a few guest spots."
Pope maintains a residency at Washington's Club Five and Oji holds court at Washington's Club Red. The pair take control of every fourth Saturday at Baltimore's Club Paradox, but that only brings them to Mobtown once a month.
The pair plays Sonar Lounge's "Pride: An MLK Day Celebration" Sunday, Jan. 19, with another local duo that hasn't played Charm City in three years, Soul Providers. Donny Burlin also spins.
Both men are most excited about their albums--Pope's My Way hits stores Jan. 22, Oji's The Underground Experience is due in March. "We've put out singles and stuff, but as a record label we've never done anything like this," Pope says. "And honestly, it doesn't happen too often in our scene. Most of the time, when you buy house CDs, they're mix CDs or they're compilations of different producers and different artists. So this is just something that's a little different."
Pope wrote and produced all the music on My Way, and its 11 tracks feature five Baltimore-based vocalists--Sheila Ford, Mart St. Michael's, Ed Ramsey, Una Barry, and spoken-word artist Teresa--and other area musicians.
"It's an album that I've been working on for the last year or so," Pope says. "Most of my vocalists, they're out already in R&B circuit doing gigs here and there. And a lot of the musicians on it were referred to me by the vocalists."
Even though Oji and Pope have expanded their profiles outside the area, the duo are still best remembered around town as the Underground Experience hosts. "Whenever we play in Baltimore, people come up and say they heard us from the radio show and yadda yadda yadda," Oji says. "And we still get e-mails all the time [from former listeners]. We miss the show, but it has been a blessed year."