McCombs = Magnetism

PREVIEWIn a digital two-by-two-inch view screen, I saw a quiet riot. Eyes screwed shut, hips swaying and hand straining in front of his face, Cass McCombs stood on a sonic island, isolated from his backing band (label-mates the Oxes) during an Austin, Texas, loft show last March at South by Southwest. All whispers and chill, he softly cautioned the crowd on what is and what is not the way to make friends. And 2,100 miles away, staring at a 30-second pixelated mini-video of the event, I knew he was right.

Tonight, Portland gets a live eyeful as the notoriously soft-spoken McCombs comes calling at the Blackbird with the Anchors and folk-pop quartet Cuspidor. But beware, because when McCombs gets lost in his music, everyone else does, too.

He's as leery of interviews as he is of comparisons to Bob Dylan. What can be gleaned of this Northern Californian's past reads like Indie-Rock Star Search. After endlessly touring/trudging up and down I-5, last year McCombs headed to New York City, where he ended up guesting for a few of Will Oldham's Palace shows. Baltimore's Monitor Records caught on to the 25-year-old's soulful sparseness and released his first EP, Not the Way, an A-bomb of player piano, acoustic guitar and reverb, last January.

Both exquisite and humbling, McCombs' slow-burning odes to opium and obsolescence spiral up into the ether, only to run out of gas in asphalt lots and lonesome state parks. It's not that he is technically superior to any other earnest coffeeshop crooner; it's just that he's so damn believable--you're sold before the second verse.

The transplanted New Yorker's full-length debut, A, is due out May 20. Building on Not the Way's stunted beauty, A should serve to secure this subtly histrionic soft sell's place in the pantheon of singer-songwriters (a label McCombs himself is rumored to hate). But what will cement his stature is the beguiling appeal with which he transfixes audiences. Wait until tonight--you too will believe. (Kelly Clarke)

Cass McCombs plays Wednesday, May 14, at the Blackbird, 3728 NE Sandy Blvd., 282-9949. 10 pm. Cover. 21+.

...fearsome rock results.

Once, my friends, there was a band from Olympia known as Karp, and no one charged forth with noisier metal, more unforgiving riffage (a French word) or tongue so deep in cheek. But Karp disbanded years ago, and the art of converting thunder into melody was thought lost.

Fortunately, this past year has seen the rise of the Whip, a monstrous collaboration between ex-Karp bassist Jared Warren and drummer Scott Jernigan, with guitarist Joe Preston, once of the Melvins and still the one-man Stonehenge of mysterious rock known as the Thrones.

The new outfit upgrades Karp's simultaneously frantic and heavy sound in two important ways: unlike the fractious old band, the Whip actually seems to get along on stage; and as Warren notes, "Joe 'shreds' more as a guitar player.... He also can, and will, grow a full beard."

And so Karp's reputation for taking nothing seriously survives, despite years off during which Warren fronted the over-the-top rock behemoth Tight Bros. from Way Back When.

"I got tired of not having an instrument in my hands," Warren says of his decision to leave a band some hailed as the second (or third) coming of AC/DC. "It's fun to just be the singer, but if the PA is weak and you have to blow your throat out every show just to be heard, it gets old.

"I just wanted to write my own songs, play at my volume and just generally have things more on my terms. I also really missed playing with Scott. We've been friends forever and have good chemistry as musicians."

The Whip is that rare group, the one that makes other bands furiously envious, sending them back to their rehearsal caves muttering, "So simple...but so brilliant...they make it look so...easy." Asked for some top-secret formulae for the Whip's sound, Warren reveals, "Usually I'll come with a riff or two to practice and we just 'hammer it out,' as we say in the biz. Crystals, too. Lots of crystals everywhere for good vibes."

The Whip is as driving and intense as any great hardcore band, but with the rib-sticking aesthetic of classic rock. The mixture produces results that are terrifyingly satisfying to any music lover. They manage to make three men sound like an entire army charging into righteous battle.

The show this Friday marks the release of the Whip's debut single, "Freelance Liaison." (Jason M. Rivera)

The Whip plays Friday, May 16, at the Blackbird, 3728 NE Sandy Blvd., 282-9949. King Cobra, Machine That Flashes and Robots in Disguise also appear. 10 pm. Cover. 21+.



The music business throws many ethical quandaries at the conscientious journalist. What if a label only offers two coke-addled nymphets in exchange for a glowing preview, instead of the contractually stipulated three? Or worse, what if a musician who happens to write for Your Employer also plays on a new album that is truly brilliant?

Such is the case with Alter, the new disc by Portland's Pleasure Forever, featuring WW contributor Dave Clifford on drums. Intense, complex, opaque and prowling, shot through with decadent keyboards and corroded guitar, Alter is great enough to suspend "conflict of interest" rules for 400 words to extoll its virtues.

Plus, Sub Pop came through with the nymphets.

Thing about Alter, it's tough to explain. From cryptic album cover art to burning proto-classics of hermetic rock like "Wicked Shivering Columbine," it is fit to inspire endless hours of cannabis-damaged inquiries into Meaning...if, y'know, you're into that. "It seems like everyone sees the album as a Thomas Pynchon novel," Clifford notes. So, pursuing edification before PF's CD-release show May 17 at the Blackbird, we quizzed Clifford on some of Alter's forbidden mysteries.

Secret No. 1: If you want to see Pleasure Forever play songs from Alter, you shouldn't wait.

The three members of Pleasure Forever have played together for ages, first in the brittle avant-punk band VSS, then as Slaves. Now, though, they may be pulling the plug on their stage show. "This short upcoming tour might well be our final live appearances ever," Clifford says.

Secret No. 2: It seems they recorded Alter under (internally applied) duress.

"We wanted to make a record that sounded like a suicide note put to music, but something that could reach that level of despair and intensity--reach the abyss--and through its/our own will to endure, convey a sense of purpose."

Secret No. 3: Some of the imagery is Heavy. But how Heavy?

The album's sinister cover photo, featuring the three Pleasure Forevers standing stiffly around a chair containing a "blanked-out" humanoid figure, is ripe with symbolism. It refers to the tarot deck's Emperor card, the card of will. It refers to funeral parlor decor. Last but not least, it refers to Manson.

"The white-out image was inspired by the eerie photos in Helter Skelter, where corpses were censored to become ghostlike shapes," Clifford says.

Secret No. 4: The influences are not those you might suppose.

Pleasure Forever, because of its brooding imagery, hedonistic name, and penchant for keyboards and antiquey cabaret influences, is often compared to the moody likes of Black Heart Procession. But in recording Alter, they followed a different set of stars. "[Singer] Andy [Rothbard] decided to forgo any pop lyricism and take the approaches of Darby Crash and Morrissey," Clifford says. DC also cites Stone Roses (!), Jane's Addiction (!!) and Oasis (!!!) as touchstones.

Secret No. 5: Alter has a happy ending.

The disc suffers no shortage of Sturm und Drang, but the drummer insists the band intended something resembling a positive message...though in the sense of those Foundation for a Better Life billboards.

"We don't mind being considered dark and heavy," says Clifford, "but there's a sense of humor, will to endure and hope that is what, to me, makes the human condition interesting and noteworthy."