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Brokeback - Brokeback and the Black Rock

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Artist: Brokeback

Album: Brokeback and the Black Rock

Label: Thrill Jockey

Review date: Jan. 18, 2013

Look up the band Brokeback on the Internet, and you’ll have to wade through pages of links about the gay cowboy movie, a cultural reference it predates but which has, thanks to a decade-long hiatus, pretty much obliterated the band’s claim to its own name. Brokeback and the Black Rock redresses the balance a bit, paradoxically borrowing a bit of the cowboy myth to reassert the band’s relevance.

The last Brokeback album, Looks at the Bird, came out in 2003, carving a modest place for itself as a subtle, atmospheric and surprisingly un-bass-y collaboration between two pre-eminent post-rock bass players — Doug McCombs from Tortoise and Noel Kupersmith from The Red Crayola and various Chicago Underground ensembles. Since then, Kupersmith dropped out of the band, and McCombs’ attention drifted elsewhere. There was a new Tortoise album and tour in the interim, and a couple of improvisational records with guitarist David Daniell.

After the 2009 Tortoise tour wound down, McCombs began thinking about Brokeback again, digging out the Fender Bass VI that had been the linchpin of its slow-moving, meditatively resonant sound. He brought in a new band. Chris Hansen and Pete Croke came from Head of Skulls!, a clamorous, Husker-Du-like melodic punk band out of Chicago. James Elkington of The Zincs offered to play drums. The four of them began rehearsing, then playing regularly for about six months before they recorded Brokeback and the Black Rock last summer.

The new album shares a good deal with older Brokeback material. There is, as before, an unhurried simplicity in the melodies, often played on six-string bass, which seems to be able to warm, polish and sustain the notes to a degree not possible on conventional bass or guitar. “Don’t Worry Pigeon,” in particular, has a lovely, languid resonance, every note rounded — no, let’s say fat — with lingering overtones. There is also a willingness to experiment with jazz-like time-signatures and textures. Check into “The Wire, the Rag and the Payoff” and you’ll think you’ve wandered over into Tortoise’s neighborhood, full of jutting, abstract architectures and off-kilter, unexpected melodic twists. It doesn’t take much to imagine the main guitar line on this track played by vibraphone, and the drumming, too, is free-form, irregular and very fine.

Yet Brokeback and the Black Rock is also a departure, and not in a way that could easily be predicted by the new band members. You might catch a bit more urgency and drive in the guitars than before, but nothing like the onslaught you hear in Head of Skull! Elkington doesn’t exactly disappear — his drumming is imaginative and intelligent — but you won’t find much to link this to The Zincs. No, the main new coloration comes, perhaps, from McCombs’ ongoing association with Calexico. (McCombs played on Carried to Dust, both John Convertino and Joey Burns have contributed to past Brokeback albums, and I’m guessing they’ve all listened to a Morricone record or two.) There’s a Western desert wind blowing past this Black Rock, a cowboy swagger in its curving bass guitar riffs. You hear this most strongly in “Who Is Bozo Texino?” and “Gold!,” the former in stop-stepping, tango-like syncopation, the latter in wide-horizon bravado and slo-mo bends and curls that evokes not the reality, but the myth, of the West.

Once you’ve heard it, this epic quality creeps into other tracks, even the last spaghetti Western ones like the long, ambitious closer “Colossus of Rhodes.” As it fades, you might very well think of cowboys, even of movies about cowboys, but not necessarily that movie. McCombs has performed a bit of rodeo jiujitsu, stealing his band’s name back by invoking the myth of the West.

By Jennifer Kelly

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