Graded on a Curve: Brokeback, Brokeback and the Black Rock

Lots of folks know Douglas McCombs as a member of Chicago’s well-loved post-rockers Tortoise, but a smaller number of listeners are familiar with his recordings under the name Brokeback, a hype-resistant and consistently interesting project that hasn’t released a record in a decade. Brokeback and the Black Rock brings an end to that gap in productivity however, and also greatly alters what came before. If markedly different, it’s still a very good album and a welcome return, one that hopefully points to a second phase of productivity from under its reactivated banner.

The genre of post-rock has covered a lot of stylistic range, more than most genres in fact, with the term being tagged to bands as diverse as Stereolab, Mogwai, Gastr del Sol, Flying Saucer Attack, Battles, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. In a sense, post-rock was/is a wide enough field that when the descriptor comes attached to an unheard group or artist it doesn’t really prepare the listener for what they are going to get as much as it provides a template for what they aren’t.

For example Chicago’s Tortoise, one of the cornerstone bands in the whole post-rock shebang, can be defined through much of their discography as embodying a new form of fusion, with jazz very much a part of their musical vocabulary, even if it’s essentially inaccurate to describe them as a jazz group.

That is, instead of inhabiting an improvisational zone, Tortoise have been consistently more interested in the moods, structural complexity, and even instrumentation (particularly the vibraphone) that also shape the jazz form, and rather than fuse with R&B or the late-‘60s-early-‘70s rock music that provided fiber for two main threads in the original Fusion impulse, they examined genres such as Krautrock, dub, and electronica.

This fusion sensibility was extended in Tortoise bassist/guitarist Douglas McCombs’ project Brokeback, an affair that first appeared via a pair of 7-inches around 1997 but really made its presence known with the ’99 LP/CD Field Recordings from the Cook County Water Table. That fine disc offered some interesting distinctions to McCombs’ main group (though it bears mentioning that he’s also the bassist for Chicago mainstays Eleventh Dream Day and a member of the acoustic group Pullman). Where the music of Tortoise reliably registers as a band sound, Brokeback first record connected as a studio-based project, one intersecting with a handful of interesting outside contributors.

Those folks included Windy City cornet-man Rob Mazurek, Stereolab’s Mary Hansen, Calexico’s Joey Burns, and McCombs’ Tortoise bandmate John McEntire, who also produced. The music they made, while still frequently conversant with the aura of a group of talented people getting together with the intention of playing and recording music in a room, was markedly different from that of Tortoise, possessing a quiet intensity in its evocation of often subtly cinematic moods. By comparison Tortoise, while again a thoroughly post-rock entity, still managed to do a fair amount of rocking, particularly in the live context.

Brokeback didn’t rock, however. For great stretches of its running time Field Recordings from the Cook County Water Table notably avoided the use of drums. The reality of this lack of a rockin’ attitude shouldn’t be taken as a minus. McCombs’ ideas for the project were extremely well executed, and part of their charm came through the modesty in which they were presented. Brokeback was no aggressive, attention demanding thing. Instead, it registered as a way for the leader to get some of his copious creativity onto disc, and as such the project was mainly absorbed by Tortoise/Thrill Jockey die-hards and those with a deep appreciation of the concurrent Chicago music scene.

If McCombs was the leader of Brokeback, he made an interesting shift into full-blown collaboration with ‘03’s Looks at the Bird, a record that found him in cahoots with bassist Noel Kupersmith, he of the excellent Chicago Underground Trio/Quartet along with being a contributor to Field Recordings. The textures and unique properties of the bass was a very large aspect of Brokeback’s debut, but curiously the larger role given to Kupersmith didn’t really increase this situation much.

Instead, the mood was more assertive, with an increased role for the drums and the sort of electronic elements easily associated with Tortoise (and also Stereolab), while also retaining the emphasis on the cinematic (ending the record with a treatment of Walter Schumann’s “Pearl’s Dream” from the soundtrack to Charles Laughton’s weird and wonderful masterpiece The Night of the Hunter) and the continued involvement of outside contributors; returning to the scene was Mazurek, McEntire, and Hansen along with her Stereolab cohort Laetitia Sadier and veteran Chicago-based drummer Chad Taylor, amongst others.

It was a fine follow-up, but there really hasn’t been a peep from Brokeback since ’03, a situation that was likely due to a pair of Tortoise albums and the tours attached to them, and additionally McCombs’ collaboration with Chi-town based electric guitarist David Daniell.

Across that span of time it was sorta easy to forget about Brokeback. Again, as fine as both albums are (and a good word should be given to 2001’s excellent 3-song release Morse Code in the Modern Age: Across the Americas), they weren’t really conceived as records that nag at the forefront of the memory, leaving the listener chomping at the bit for more.

It’s now 2013, a full decade since Looks at the Bird and Brokeback has returned with a totally fresh group of contributors on Brokeback and the Black Rock, a record that presents a far more direct approach to sound, one that’s very much in keeping with the structural attitudes of an actual working rock band.

The new members are Pete Croke of Tight Phantomz and Head of Skulls! on bass, Chris Hansen of Pinebender and Head of Skulls! on guitar, and James Elkington of Zincs and the Horse’s Ha on drums, organ, and guitar, with Mccombs rounding out the group on guitar and bass VI.

At first this shift in tactics inspires a lingering question; specifically, why didn’t McCombs just choose a new moniker for the release of this album? For on the surface, Brokeback and the Black Rock feels like a fresh start. If all instrumental in the tradition of assorted post-rock acts, the record lacks the studio project orientation of Field Recordings and Looks at the Bird and instead connects like a group of eight tracks that were readied for recording through sessions of extended practice.

To elaborate, there’s a surplus of heat and muscle in evidence on this new record that’s distinct from the previous incarnations of Brokeback. This is especially apparent on the slow build of “Colossus of Roads,” the LP’s nearly eleven minute closer, and a song that brings McCombs’ bold change of direction to a stirring conclusion. But the energy of tight-knit interaction is abundant throughout the album’s running time.

Having never witnessed or even read any accounts of Brokeback as a live entity, I’m ignorant to how McCombs (and Kupersmith) translated the music from those earlier records to the performance stage. The transition was certainly possible, but it would’ve been just that; a transition. With Brokeback and the Black Rock, it doesn’t appear that this crew would have to do much more than gather the instruments and get in the van, man.

For instance, opener “Will be Arriving” features the sort of drum gusto that reliably gets those heads bobbing and bodies swaying on the floor of the club. After a couple minutes the proceedings detour into a gradually ascending buildup of tension complete with a wicked display of guitar soloing that leads to the expected (though smartly not telegraphed or overblown) rousing release. In a nutshell, it would make no sense for this new version of Brokeback not to book a tour.

But after ample spins, Brokeback and the Black Rock begins to show its post-rock pedigree. It’s there in the jazzy rhythmic finesse of “The Wire, the Rag and the Payoff,” and it suffices to say that these gents are generally disinterested in examining a simple 4/4. Additionally, the song’s guitar twang isn’t shooting for any kind of authentic grit; at times it even mildly reminded this correspondent of Bill Frisell’s work in John Zorn’s Naked City. And that fleeting association encourages a deeper one in how Brokeback continues to radiate a decidedly cinematic vibe.

Part of it is the lack of vocals, but along the way the influence of Morricone also manifests itself, and in fact the record could be described to Brokeback newbies as a highly disciplined rock soundtrack to an arty existential Western that doesn’t actually exist (or does it?). That might be lazy considering the tipoff of the record’s title to the ‘50s film A Bad Day at Black Rock, but after absorbing the atmosphere of “Tonight at Ten,” a song almost readymade to accompany the soused stumbling of some troubled soul as he travels the environs of some dusty backwater dive, it’s a relationship that’s hard to resist.

And “Don’t Worry Pigeon” even brings a very small hint of Slint to the turntable. For many though, this and the abovementioned links to the Brokeback of yore won’t be enough to justify the major operational change, an unusual circumstance for an act coming from as wide-open a field as post-rock. Folks that are off-put by the differences should listen a few more times. McCombs’ hasn’t betrayed his past; he’s simply adapted it in a manner that hardly anybody would’ve expected. After consideration, it’s a very nice move.


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