Brokeback and the Black Rock
Douglas McCombs’s goal for his longstanding Brokeback project has always been to do service to those fleeting moments in life when everything seems clear and defined and beautiful and the hair stands up on the back of your neck. These moments are hard to describe and by their nature impossible to capture, but to try it is to be inspired. They’re not always auditory, but for their musical expression, think Roy Orbison when he's sad and lonely, or alternately when he’s feeling triumphant, a Tom Verlaine guitar solo, Stravinsky and Erik Satie, an Ennio Morricone crescendo. Or Billy Gibbons, in a lyric like "Ridin’ ’top the floodway on a Friday night / The landscape’s a fine and natural sight."
In the fall of 2010, when McCombs convened a new version of the band, Brokeback hadn't played a live show for more than two years and had not recorded any new music for eight. McCombs’s idea was not to start over, exactly, but to start fresh, approaching similar harmonic content from a different direction, taking into consideration the perspectives of the three new guys, Pete Croke (Tight Phantomz, Head of Skulls!, Reds and Blue), Chris Hansen (Pinebender, Head of Skulls!), and James Elkington (the Zincs, the Horse’s Ha).
The idea was to make this new version of Brokeback as much like everyone's first band as possible. They set up a once- or twice-weekly practice schedule, and for almost a year stuck to it as diligently as possible. Only in September 2011, when they felt confident that they had a decent set of material together, did they begin playing live shows.
The next step was crucial to the development of the songs that would end up on Brokeback and the Black Rock. The band resolved to spend about six months playing as many shows as they could, trying not to turn anything down, and even lucked into a ten-date tour opening for their friends the Sea and Cake. As everybody learns in their first band, playing new songs ten days in a row really locks everything down and makes it clear what’s working and what’s not.
In April 2012 they spent two days tracking with recording engineer John McEntire, McCombs’s bandmate in Tortoise, at his Soma Electronic Music Studio. They did some overdubbing and tweaking at Elkington's home studio, NADA, and in July went back to Soma for two days with McEntire to mix. Done.
Brokeback and the Black Rock has the sound of a band playing. The arrangements were sweated over during the year and a half prior to recording, so the challenge was to capture convincing performances of the songs. McEntire has done a great job recording the band. The bass and drums sound natural and full. The guitars are clear and ringing with just the right growl. Oh, and this band likes reverb. There are moments that recall the more delicate and nuanced approach of earlier Brokeback recordings, but the real attraction is the increased dynamic range of a group of musicians who’ve been playing together for a while. There are moments of pure release that would not have been possible in other versions of Brokeback.
A brief history of Brokeback:
In 1995, McCombs began performing solo sets under the name Brokeback. These were opportunities for him to play quieter (or at least more sparsely) than he could in his other bands, all of which included three or four other people, and to explore the sound of the specific guitar that he used for these sets, a Fender Bass VI. It's a type of six-string bass that was moderately popular in the late 50s and early 60s and strangely (along with its cousin, the baritone guitar) has had a sudden resurgence in the late aughts. McCombs found the sound of this instrument perfect for songs he had been writing, which were basically very simple, unaccompanied melodies.
In 1997 he recorded two seven-inch records, Returns to The Orange Grove and Another Routine Day Breaks, that stuck to the stripped-down solo approach of his live sets.
In 1999 McCombs made a Brokeback LP called Field Recordings From the Cook County Water Table. This LP built on the solo approach with a few extra musicians (McEntire and John Herndon of Tortoise, Mary Hansen of Stereolab, coronet player Rob Mazurek, and bass player Noel Kupersmith), allowing for more expanded arrangements of some of the songs. Kupersmith also became McCombs's touring partner, and they embarked upon quite a few tours as a duo in the U.S., Europe, and Japan.
In 2001 McCombs and Kupersmith made an EP, Morse Code in the Modern Age: Across The Americas. This recording was built around the idea of collaboration. It contains two long improvisations (with Alan Licht, Yo La Tengo’s James McNew, Tim Foljahn, Calexico’s Joey Burns, and Jon Birdsong) and one cover of a Roy Orbison song (with Burns and his bandmate John Convertino and Mary Hansen of Stereolab). The EP also includes two visual works by filmmaker Braden King. By now, on tour the duo would often expand to include a drummer (Chad Taylor, John Herndon, Tim Mulvenna) and cornet player Rob Mazurek.
In 2003 McCombs and Kupersmith recorded Looks at the Bird, the most ambitious Brokeback album yet. It featured fairly elaborate arrangements for most of the songs and many guest musicians (including Hansen and Mazurek as well as Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab and Japanese sound artist Aki Tsuyuko). This was also the first time a Brokeback recording featured songs by Kupersmith as well as McCombs. The duo shared writing credits on everything, and Kupersmith also asserted his vision in the arrangements, even writing and programming some very intense artificial drumming. Kupersmith and McCombs assembled a touring band with Tim Mulvenna and Califone guitarist Jim Becker. This band spent eight weeks touring the U.S. Becker was replaced by Mazurek and guitar player Jeff Parker for Japan.
After this, McCombs, Kupersmith, and Mulvenna played sporadically; an invitation to an All Tommorrow’s Parties festival curated by the Dirty Three, another small festival curated by friends in Belgium, etc. That lineup played its last show at a 2008 concert in Chicago celebrating the 15th anniversary of the Thrill Jockey record label, and McCombs was soon occupied with Tortoise’s 2009 album, Beacons of Ancestorship. The new Brokeback lineup came together in late 2010.
Pete Croke: bass
James Elkington: drums, organ, guitar
Chris Hansen: guitar
Douglas McCombs: guitar, bass VI
"Brokeback and the Black Rock is so well-crafted that it stands on its own without verbal explanations. Each track is excellent, but listened to as a whole the tracks feel like movements of a larger symphony."
The Duke Chronicle
" With more than a little reverb, a sense of wide-open space, and a strong kinship with Americana, Brokeback and Black Rock is what instrumental albums should be." Alarm Magazine
" 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." The Vinyl District