For a man of famously few words in interviews, it seems appropriate that Big Wheels and Others should start with an excerpt from the 1970 documentary ‘Sean’. On three occasions soundbites of the four and a half year old Sean Farrell serve to break up the music. McCombs himself was born in California and these interviews of what it was like growing up in San Francisco seem to serve as a reflection of his own experiences of childhood.
Even though all of McCombs’ previous offerings require multiple listens to really come to terms with, at a lengthy twenty-two tracks, Big Wheels and Others is in no rush to define itself. Despite the singles, it is hard to determine which songs stand out on the album. They all seem to be of equal importance and guide the listener through McCombs’ influences from the stripped acoustic guitar of ‘Dealing’, through the country driven lap-steel on ‘Angel Blood’ to the instrumental jazz compositions such as disc two’s opening track ‘It Means A Lot To Know You Care’. The latter’s title suggests a thank you to the listener for taking the effort to change CD; for all those who do the song is a worthwhile reward.
It’s just as difficult now, several listens and many hours since first hearing the record, to put a finger on what it is that makes this record so rewarding. Undoubtedly people will, without the context of interviews and press that McCombs is so insistent on refusing, enforce meanings upon the record that may have never been originally intended. As with all great art, Big Wheels and Others has already begun discussion. What you take from it is up to you. All I know so far is that with Sean’s voice breaking up songs of varying styles from throughout McCombs’ career, and the title’s allusion to a children’s tricycle, there is definitely retrospection present.
With each revisit, it feels increasingly like this is most definitely an album proper, rather than a collection of McCombs’ latest songs. Big Wheels and Others needs to be listened to as a whole, a lengthy whole. Why? I’m not sure, but as McCombs says in the nine minutes that close the first disc, through whispered harmonies interlaced with swelling string arrangements and eerie lap-steel guitar, “Everything Has To Be Just So”. I can’t tell you why, but it does. Listen for yourself and figure it out.
By Will Olenski