Brokeback – Field Recordings from the Cook County Water Table

Released in 1999 on Thrill Jockey Records

Recorded 1998-1999

2017 Pressing

Format: LP


Review:

Doug McCombs’ first album as Brokeback is imbued with pastoral impressionism, experimentalism, and a sense of Zen contentment. The opening track, “After the Internationals”, is a mellow improvisation featuring the rhythmic weaving of three upright basses, played by Josh Abrams, Noel Kupersmith and McCombs. When the melodic pulse slows, the basses settle into a gentle groove and are joined by the thematic cornet of Rob Marzurek and McComb’s Bass VI, a short-scale bass with six strings that can easily fluctuate between both guitar and bass roles. The duration of the album seems to center around this versatile instrument, which is usually wet with chorus and reverb to sculpt a fluid, aquatic tone to complement the slow, tranquil melodies. There’s no doubt these melodies are inspired by Ennio Morricone’s influential spaghetti western soundtracks of the 60’s (the whistling in “The Great Banks” being the most obvious tribute). While the overall vibe of the album remains relatively stable, the changing accompaniment of each piece allows McComb’s playing to thrive in a multitude of contexts. On the four solo pieces interspersed throughout the album, the Bass VI is either completely alone or multi-tracked, with chords, picking, bass and melodies all played on the same instrument. The atmospheres are augmented by field recordings of trains, birds, etc., that really give the album a sense of place (as do the title and album cover). On the other tracks he adds Rhodes or lap steel, or is joined by producer/Tortoise bandmate John McEntire, who creates light rhythms with shaker, triangle and sparse drums. On songs that require deeper low end to anchor the watery vibes, upright bass is handled by the previously mentioned Noel Kupersmith, who either grooves on a jazzy bassline or uses his bow to generate droning waves underneath the surface. The lushness of the accompaniment reaches its peak on the penultimate track “The Great Banks”, when McCombs, McEntire, and Kupersmith are also joined by the late Mary Hansen (Stereolab) on vocals, whose wordless syllables serve as a lovely new texture to an already lovely record, one that can be appreciated from a passive impressionistic standpoint as well as under the microscopic attention of an engaged ear.

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