Graded on a Curve: Khruangbin,
The Universe Smiles Upon You

Bassist Laura Lee, guitarist Mark Speer, and drummer Donald Johnson (D.J. for short) comprise Khruangbin, an act formed in Houston, TX specializing in warm, relaxed, and largely instrumental Thai pop-inspired groove mining. The name translates to “engine fly” or “aeroplane,” and after a small batch of short-players they make their full-length debut with the general good vibes of The Universe Smiles Upon You. Their playing is consistently in the pocket and even features a few vocal tracks blended in; it’s out November 6 on LP/CD/digital through Night Time Stories Ltd.

Khruangbin’s template is the funky, soulful, and frequently vocal-less stuff initially released in Thailand during the ‘60s and ‘70s and subsequently documented on the internet (check the outstanding blog Monrakplengthai for one example) and rounded up on compilations such as Subliminal Sounds’ pair of Thai Beat a Go-Go volumes.

Like similar material sourced from other global outposts, Thai pop can be a stone treat for the ears, but Khruangbin’s objective is tricky; on one side is the risk of second-rate pastiche or shallow, even disrespectful neo-Exotica, and at the opposite extreme a potential sternness of endeavor that could easily undermine the inspiration’s unfussy lightness of touch.

Self-releasing a 3-song 7-inch in 2011, three years later Khruangbin’s profile rose substantially. Issued by Night Time Stories Ltd. subsidiary Late Night Tales on a limited edition Record Store Day 45, the excellent “A Calf in Winter” brought recollections of the Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac classic “Albatross” and was part of Brit DJ-producer Bonobo’s Late Night Tales mix where it rubbed shoulders with impressive company including Nina Simone, the Menahan Street Band, Dorothy Ashby, and Bill Evans.

“A Calf in Winter”’s flip “The Recital That Never Happened” offered a sweet mess of tastefully rendered psych guitar, a property extending to the 4-song white vinyl 10-inch follow-up “The Infamous Bill.” Signed to Night Time Stories Ltd. proper, it defined Khruangbin as a vessel of lithe ‘60s Thai funk instrumental workouts.

Often cited as reminiscent of assorted selections on the soundtracks to the films of Quentin Tarantino, the group’s four-song covers 10-inch from earlier in 2015 underscores the comparison. “History of Flight” opens with a reading of Tarantino-fave Ennio Morricone’s “Le clan des siciliens” from the ’69 film of the same name, a piece some may recall from the first LP by John Zorn’s Naked City. Tackling Teun-Jai Boon Praraksa’s “Ha Fang Kheng Kan” is unsurprising, but readings of Serge Gainsbourg and Yellow Magic Orchestra reach into less expected territory.

It might possibly be a coincidence, but the title of The Universe Smiles Upon You’s opener reinforces the connection to Tarantino, though the strongest immediate attribute of “Mr. White” (Harvey Keitel’s character in Reservoir Dogs) is how smoothly they lay it all down. Speer’s execution utilizes a fine sense of balance, his tone likely to satisfy discerning psych heads as he sidles quite nicely into the band’s funk-lovers’ equation.

This is trio music, which roughly means “no place to hide,” and Lee and Johnson are simply integral to the agenda, her bass as melodically focused as it is rhythmic but never too busy, and his drumming a textbook in crisp economy. “Two Fish and an Elephant” leans into the funk a tad, sounding a bit like a Thai reaction to the early singles of the Meters with a little less edge and a dollop of sunshiny psych shading.

This last characteristic is enhanced by wordless vocal additives, beaucoup oohs and las that are the closest the disc gets to an Exotica neighborhood but mostly just nod toward ‘60s studio harmony pop. They smartly display restraint, a key element in Khruangbin’s attack being an avoidance of the excessive (the tune seems to have been recorded at a live gig). And offering nice contrast is “Dern Kala,” which explores the ‘60s instrumental rock core of their sound.

Alongside US surf-rock, the UK unit the Shadows found wild popularity in ‘60s Thailand, so much so that the noted Cliff Richard backers spawned the Thai genre known as Shadow Music. “Dern Kala” travels a landscape hinting at the cinematically Western, and therein lays an added strength; as it progresses Khruangbin folds in dashes of the Shadows, Dick Dale, and the Ventures to the Thai funk dish, the results friendly and fairly recognizable rather than calculated and overly familiar.

“Little Joe & Mary” intensifies the distinctiveness through the integration of Will Van Horn’s pedal steel guitar, the somewhat expansive running-time leading into “White Gloves,” the first of the LP’s numbers to overtly employ throats expressing lyrics. Its breathy voices lend a subtly heady ambiance to what’s basically a solid mid-tempo exploration of the Curtis Mayfield zone.

They back it up with the buoyant proto-disco of “People Everywhere (Still Alive).” Credited as the disc’s second vocal number, by the point a voice emerges emoting the parenthetical of the song’s title it’s halfway over. The chief purpose here is clearly body language and not far behind is the cultivation of unusual atmospheres, as “The Man Who Took My Sunglasses” lands somewhere in the vicinity of desert-surf.

“August Twelve” serves as The Universe Smiles Upon You’s lengthiest entry and by extension is an ample platform for dexterity and dynamics finding them working up a collective head of steam that’s momentarily raucous. It leads into penultimate cut “Balls and Pins,” the third vocal outing also providing the record its most forthrightly psych-pop environment.

Van Horn’s pedal steel returns for “Zionsville,” and instead of a C&W air he accentuates a slightly Hawaiian sensibility. It’s a frankly dangerous maneuver but ultimately produces no hiccups, essentially because Khruangbin is an undertaking sans irony. And in a nifty closing twist Speer’s axe, which gives the group its psych flavor overall, delves into a swell flurry of late ‘60s pop R&B riffing.

The Universe Smiles Upon You isn’t designed to blow minds but to broaden a total experience; in addition to DJ sequencing, the LP suggests worthwhile accompaniment for open road driving and sharing Khruangbin’s wavelength could surely inspire repeated listening.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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