Originally conceived way back in 1995 as a stripped-down solo project for Doug McCombs – in-between duties for Tortoise and Eleventh Dream Day – to explore the minimalistic and melodic possibilities of the 6-string bass guitar, Brokeback evolved into a far more sociable and eclectic enterprise over three studio albums between 1999 and 2003. Drawing in a roving cast of members on loan from the Chicago Underground Quartet, Stereolab, Calexico and Tortoise, McCombs forged an increasingly inspired instrumental-led vision that drew together strands of blissful bass-centric jazz, balmy tropicalia, Tom Verlaine’s wordless Warm And Cool and lashings of Morricone’s seminal twangscapes. On 2003’s exceptional Looks At Bird McCombs seemingly reached the peak of his Brokeback ascent, with the prospect of a sequel seemingly fading as his work rate increased elsewhere with – amongst others – his aforementioned mothership bands and as one-half of an avant-garde guitar duo alongside David Daniell. So it comes as a somewhat unexpected surprise for 2013 to find McCombs reigniting his Brokeback brand for a fourth and long-awaited LP.
The key change for this reconstituted Brokeback is that McCombs has established a more fixed live-orientated band set-up; composed of himself on guitar and 6-string bass, bassist Pete Croke (Pinebender, Head of Skulls!), guitarist Chris Hansen (Tight Phantomz and also of Head of Skulls!) and James Elkington (The Zincs) on drums, organ and more guitar. This shift is both a blessing and a curse for Brokeback And The Black Rock. On the one hand it makes for cohesive statement of re-intent with McCombs reinaugurating Brokeback as a more much a tightly-knit democratic unit high on dynamic interplay; on the other hand it means that McCombs’s benevolent dictator role is diluted along with his gift for low-end sonic hooks and non-rock invention.
After dozens of listens searching for the same gold dust sprinkled over its predecessor, Brokeback And The Black Rock reveals itself as a flawed yet still sporadically rewarding long-player. The opening “Will Be Arriving” certainly begins itself promisingly with richly evocative guitar figures underpinned by ocean-trawling bass lines, re-conjuring the spacious spaghetti western atmospherics that have served Brokeback records so well previously, yet just before the halfway point the piece is almost lost to fret-board noodling and sluggish overbearing drums. For “The Wire, The Rag, And The Payoff” a more muscular arrangement is there from the start but the guitars veer more towards satisfying twang than tiresome twiddling, with Elkington’s drums driving proceedings with a desert road-hungry tempo. Greater things come in its wake with the haunting Calexico-meets-Duane Eddy moodiness of “Who Is Bozo Texino?” but unfortunately the ensuing pirouetting Santana-like smarminess of “Tonight At Ten,” the yearning yet meandering plod of “Gold!” and the overlong ill-focused “Don’t Worry Pigeon” make the record sag badly in the middle. Things thankfully recover well for the album’s closing twosome; the sparse respite-giving “Tonight At Eleven” (which recalls the low-key warmth of 1999’s Field Recordings From The Cook County Water Table LP) and the mighty neo-psychedelic churn of “Colossus Of Roads” (which throws down the gauntlet to Thrill Jockey labelmates Eternal Tapestry in the lysergic soundscape arena).
Whilst it might be a music writer cliché to say it but had Brokeback And The Black Rock been self-edited significantly, with a ‘less is a more’ approach, it might have made for a great EP. As it stands, it’s ultimately a missed-opportunity that’s really only for the Doug McCombs loyalists amongst us to hunt for the nuggets hidden inside.