Free and legal MP3: Cass McCombs (potent, determined, minimally arranged)

There is over the long haul an emerging sense of Cass McCombs-iness about what the man does—a spectral mix of melody and atmosphere, eloquence and elusiveness.

Cass McCombs

“The Same Thing” – Cass McCombs

Cass McCombs is one mysterious dude. He grew up in Northern California but since then hasn’t managed to live in any one place in particular. He doesn’t do interviews. His web site uses a font that’s a 1/2-inch tall; you can only see about eight lines on the screen at a time. Maybe strangest of all, he has now released two albums this year.

The music he makes doesn’t sound entirely the same from album to album. (He has been featured here twice previously, in 2005 and 2007.) And yet there is over the longer haul an emerging sense of Cass McCombs-iness about what he does—a spectral mix of melody and atmosphere, eloquence and elusiveness. His doggedly echoed voice, alternating between a buzzy whisper and an adenoidal croon, has been with us long enough to be its own thing by just about now, although it won’t sound entirely unfamiliar to fans of either Lloyd Cole or T Bone Burnett. And “The Same Thing,” surely, is a potent song, the determined gait of its minimally-arranged verse underscoring the repeating thematic observation about pain and love being indeed “the same thing.” McCombs draws you in with his words but also dodges your inquiries, as he commonly sings just below the level of aural comprehension, a fact aggravated by his tendency here to sing lyrical lines that don’t scan well with the music. Normally I’m not thrilled with that but when a real wordsmith does it I feel there must be some good reason involved and in this case I suspect further elusiveness.

As for the unexpected, keyboard-induced jauntiness of the song’s bridge-like chorus, I will simply note that those are some of the least happy-go-lucky “la-la-las” in rock’n’roll history. From the enigmatic Mr. McCombs, it seems a satisfying par for the course.

“The Same Thing” is from Humor Risk, the aforementioned second 2011 release for the 34-year-old singer/songwriter, which came out earlier this month; Wit’s End was delivered back in April. These are his fifth and sixth full-length albums, and both arrived via Domino Records. Thanks to Seattle’s mighty KEXP for the MP3, as part of the KEXP blog “Song of the Day” series.

Free and legal MP3: Sarah Blasko (smoky vocals, Morricone-ish setting)

Nothing says “cinematic” better than a Morricone-inspired whistling introduction, but I like how down-to-earth and personal everything still manages to sound here. Often this kind of spaghetti western-ish styling opens up sweeping vistas with a certain amount of ironic winking, conjuring bleak deserts and dusty trails in an almost cartoonish way. But here Blasko takes the whistly intro, the Spanish-like guitar, and a touch of martial snare and wraps them up in her smoky, heartsore voice, singing a simple, haunting melody.

“All I Want” – Sarah Blasko

Nothing says “cinematic” better than a Morricone-inspired whistling introduction, but I like how down-to-earth and personal everything still manages to sound here. Often this kind of spaghetti western-ish styling opens up sweeping vistas with a certain amount of ironic winking, conjuring bleak deserts and dusty trails in an almost cartoonish way. But here Blasko takes the whistly intro, the Spanish-like guitar, and a touch of martial snare and wraps them up in her smoky, heartsore voice, singing a simple, haunting melody. By the time the strings arrive, we aren’t picturing a lonesome rider in the blistering vastness of the faux Wild West; she is clearly singing about inner landscapes, not outer ones. That producer Björn Yttling (of Peter, Bjorn and John fame) has found a way to personalize a musical setting rooted in outsized gestures is a mighty part of this song’s charm, but it took Blasko’s distinctive husky-breathy voice to pull it off. I’m guessing her voice gave him the idea in the first place. There’s something haunted and unreachable in it.

Blasko is from Sydney, where she has a sizable following after three well-regarded albums. “All I Want” is from her third and most recent CD, As Day Follows Night, which was recorded in Stockholm with Yttling and released last year in Australia and this spring in Europe. A U.S. release is scheduled for August.