Brokeback – Looks at the Bird

Brokeback - Looks at the Bird

Brokeback - Looks at the Bird

Over the past decade or so, Douglas McCombs has established himself as the king of Chicago’s low-end anchor-men. With diligent and diverse bass-playing day jobs in indie-rock legends Eleventh Dream Day, post-rock legionnaires Tortoise, and rustic post-folkers Pullman, McCombs has more than earned his four-string stripes. This has left his quasi-solo enterprise, Brokeback, as a conduit to carve out his personalised sonic stencils. Until now that is.

Whereas the first two Brokeback albums – 1999’s welcoming Field Recordings from Cook County Water Table and 2001’s more oblique Morse Code in a Modern Age: Across the Americas – were essentially McCombs’s contemplative bass-driven instrumentals fleshed out by hand-picked collaborators (via remote tape exchanges or at touring pit-stops), this third full-length set is a far more collective endeavour, and all the better for it.

Long-serving guest lieutenant Noel Kupersmith (Chicago Underground Quartet) has now been inaugurated as a permanent partner to Field Marshall McCombs, giving him full access to both the songwriting inner-sanctum and the full recording process. Kupersmith’s avant-jazz and electronica credentials also provide a cohesive counterpoint to McCombs’s lonesome urban cowboy meditations. The core duo are complemented by erstwhile Brokeback guest-players: Rob Mazurek and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground), John McEntire (Tortoise, The Sea & Cake), and Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen (Stereolab).

Thus “Name’s Winston, Friends Call Me James” and “In the Reeds” give us globules of gorgeous low-end jazz for lazy Sunday afternoons, layered-up with mellifluous wordless harmonies, skittering percussion and intuitive acoustic/electric bass interplay. Elsewhere, there’s a brief flashback to the last album’s dark ‘n’ stark improvisations (“From the Black Current”) as well as some cross-fertilization with the Chicago Underground’s delirious digitally-enhanced post-jazz (“LupĂ©”). The versatility of the McCombs/Kupersmith brotherhood is also highlighted with the stunning Ennio Morricone-moulded reconstruction of Tortoise’s “The Suspension Bridge at IguzĂș Falls” and the glitch-techno shadings of “The Wind-Up Bird.” In fact, throughout the album’s course the duo rarely pitch in a bum bass-note or make genre-leap they can’t complete.
The pretty and plaintive album finale of “Pearl’s Dream” (originally composed by 50s film-score writer/arranger Walter Schumann) is made particularly poignant by circumstance. Over a soft warm bed of minimal bass, vibes, and cornet, guest singer Mary Hansen, who very recently died in a tragic road accident, delivers the delicate near-self-fulfilling prophetic lines, “Flew away, flew away into the sky, into the moon…” with the kind of chilling before-and-beyond the grave presence that sends shudders down the spine. It’s doubly-tragic that the first real words sung on a Brokeback record have also become some of the last Mary Hansen ever committed to tape. She will be sorely missed by Stereolab and Brokeback fans alike.

Although the release of this third Brokeback album is tinged with tragedy, it should still be whole heartedly celebrated – for its warmth and intelligence and for its mix of concise melodicism and purposeful exploration. Above all, it proves that bass-players can make their own records without becoming anywhere near as hateful or embarrassing as Level 42’s Mark King or ex-Police man Sting. If you only ever buy one Brokeback album, be sure as hell to make it this one.