Doug McCombs must be the busiest man in Chicago. Not content with the amorphous beast that is Tortoise, playing bass with Eleventh Dream Day, releasing the Pullman records and undertaking various collaborations, particularly that with David Daniell, he also has what could be considered his own project, Brokeback.
Brokeback started in the late 1990s as a means for Doug to release material personal to him, particularly using his six-string bass. The first couple of albums were ruminative explorations of space and texture, the elastic nature of the bass sound drawing the listener in. However, Illinois River Valley Blues, Brokeback’s fourth album, finds Doug surrounded by a regular group of players now and using that opportunity to expand the parameters of his vision.Interestingly, although the title gives the idea that the album is tied to a particular place, it does in fact veer all over the map and seems to have moved on once again from what Brokeback have previously recorded. If anyone, the band share some space with Calexico as quite a few of the tracks evoke that widescreen desert atmosphere. For me, previous album The Black Rock relied too heavily on guitar, but here there is space for everybody. In particular, opener “Ride Ahead And Light The Way For Me”, with its high mournful guitar wail, its slow panoramic pace and the gorgeous cirrus-like sigh of vocals, brings a broad sweeping bowl of a landscape to mind, the sun high in the sky, the wind a breath barely registering. The band are truly in harmony here.
Elsewhere, the memory of Tortoise stirs, which is no surprise as Tortoise were covered on earlier albums — but here it is a natural instinct. The bass is sinuous, deep and resonant on “Cairo Levee” and as the tricky guitar lines wind around the bass figure, a gentle hi-hat hiss lends a spectral aura. There is a guitar solo partway through, but the tone is such that it does not overwhelm.With track titles like “Andalusia, IL” and “The Canyons Of Illinois” it would appear that, although the band are proudly Chicago area residents, they still want to push the music into other area, to bring fresh influences to bear and therefore push the notion of Brokeback always forward. The stately harmonica intro of the latter track ushers in a slow and deliberate rhythm that gradually builds into an incredibly pretty repetitive guitar mantra, whereas “Andalusia, IL” has the sort of Tex-Mex flourish that calls to mind Friends of Dean Martinez. At times the mood is sultry. The deceptively simple, bubbling bass of “Spanish Venus” is enshrouded by shimmering cymbals and a pedal steel moans like a heat haze as jittery guitar, heat-affected and smoky, reminiscent of the first Tortoise album tries and struggles to settle.
As the album progresses it is almost as if we are making our way through the day towards night: the campfire lullaby “Ursula”, with its descending minor chord pattern, is delicious and hypnotic: there is a strangely French Riviera feel to “Rise, Fernanda, Rise” and by the time we reach final track “Night Falls On Chillicothe”, we feel the lights in the distance of a freight train moving inexorably away, the vista starts to darken and finally we are returned into the embrace of that yearning bass, delirious in its depth and resonance.Although we may consider Brokeback Doug’s personal vehicle, I think that with this album the ideal band has been discovered by him. The players bring their own distinct personalities to the music and if it hasn’t already, it is time for Brokeback to shed the image of being Doug’s side project. With the strength and vision of this album, they are clearly on equal standing with his other bands — and may even come to eclipse them.