Dreams come true

Pub date September 2, 2009
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

DUAL INTERVIEWS Cass McCombs and Karen Black — not exactly Marvin and Tammi, or Elton or Kiki, or Waylon or Tammy, but undeniably classic from the very first listen. "Dreams-Come-True Girl" kicks off McCombs’ new album Catacombs (Domino) in style, immediately staking a claim for song of the year.

The partnership between McCombs and Black seems made in heaven — a strange heaven. It turns out that it was born from friendship: specifically, Black’s friendship with McCombs’ frequent collaborator Aaron Brown, who has created some of McCombs’ cover art and directed his music videos; and Black’s and Brown’s friendship with Bay Area filmmaker Rob Nilsson. "Rob introduced me to Aaron, and we just hit it off," Black relates via phone from Macon, Georgia, where she’s auditioning actors for a play she’s written called Missouri Waltz. "I invited him to have breakfast. Then one day he said, Listen, my friend Cass is cutting a CD next Tuesday, why don’t you come by and sing with him? That’s all I knew. I just did it because of the trust I had in Aaron, and my opinion of Aaron."

Black’s trust is a reward to McCombs and the listener. Beginning in Buddy Holly territory, "Dreams-Come-True Girl" moves handsomely through contemplative passages before Black arrives. It isn’t an overstatement to say that she turns in a country-rock grand dame performance worthy of a Wynette or Loretta Lynn while very much putting her distinct stamp on the song, switching from sublime siren calls to comic dance requests on a dime. "She’s just a gas," McCombs says admiringly from Los Angeles. "Out jaws were on the floor as she was riffing. She was in control. It was amazing to watch, and pretty inspiring."

Anyone lucky enough to have seen Black move from Bessie Smith to Katherine Anne Porter with graceful unease in her one-woman show knows that her musical performances in 1970’s Five Easy Pieces and 1975’s Nashville — two of McCombs’ favorite Black movies — merely hint at her vocal range and interpretive ability. Considering songwriters such as Dean Wareham have covered Black’s compositions, it’s bizarre that there isn’t a full-length Karen Black recording. Fortunately, producer Ariel Rechtshaid and McCombs are looking to remedy that situation next year.

For now, Black is busy with the usual amazing array of projects, ranging from plays (readings of her Mama at Midnight have been put on in L.A. and New York City) to new movies (The Blue Tooth Virgin; a bit part in Alex Cox’s Repo Man sequel Repo Chick) and an HBO pilot (Magical Balloon) by the people behind Tim and Eric Awesome Show.

As for McCombs and Black in "Dream-Come-True Girl," their relationship continues to bloom with each new performance. "The two characters have evolved," says McCombs. "Her character is reaching out to mine and saying C’mon, let’s go! It’s Saturday, let’s go out and have some fun! My character defuses the situation and looks away. It’s easy for both of us to do those roles. It comes naturally" — he laughs — "I suppose."

"You know, I’m no dream girl," Black says coyly. "But he’s so cute. They said, Come and dance for hours in your three-inch heels, and I said, Well, let’s try it. It turned out that I could do what the song was leading us to do, which was sort of flirt with him, sort of think about him, and sort of feel ridiculous because I shouldn’t be thinking about a young man like that. He’s so cute lookin’. He’s just the darlingest boy."