One album and a few extra bandmates later, Cass McCombs is a changed man. He’s not completely different; his jaded, sullen side still peaks through the darkness in his eyes. Yet his performance at the Beachland last night was a far cry from the set he played when he opened for Jose Gonzalez a year and a half ago. Rather than sneering at the audience, you could almost catch a glimmer of a smile occasionally.
McCombs’ newer material has a sunny side, and a full backing band was better able to express the depth of emotion he carries in his vulnerable voice. There were times, though, where I wished the band would evaporate so you could hear McCombs' smooth garbling and the sweetly simple song constructions.
His music has the retro feel of Brill Building pop, with subtle harmonies and an echoed reverb effect on his vocals. During “You Saved My Life,” McCombs hiccuped into little half-spoken phrases that almost sounded like Elvis Presley.
The Walkmen upped the ante and the tempo from the minute they stepped onstage. The NYC band combines the magnetism of the Strokes with the concentration and intensity of the National. Fan favorite “The Rat” set the standard. Frontman Hamilton Leithauser hurtled toward the audience with a pulsing energy that lit up the stage as the rest of the band stunned ears with sounds that can only come from immaculate musicianship.
A full horn section (three trumpets, one trombone) accompanied the band’s bass, organ, drums and guitar mix. But instead of being overwhelming, the sound was clean and polished. The Walkmen aren't a showy bunch, so they didn’t clutter their set with stage banter. Leithauser was saving his voice — a raspy but gorgeous wail — for the songs. Excellent decision. —Danielle Sills