March 6, 2003

Test Spin: Brokeback

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It doesn’t take six degrees of separation to trace a line from Brokeback to Chicagoan post-rock juggernaut Tortoise. Douglas McCombs is a founder of both bands, and his uniquely melodic approach to the bass is unmistakable in both contexts. Brokeback comes off as more than another side project, however. The music is both exploratory and composed, harkening back to Tortoise’s mellow masterpiece TNT, but some interesting collaborations contribute a fresh feel to what is often criticized as a stagnant and formulaic genre.

The formulas are still all here: interwoven and layered melodies, a healthy dose of laptop sequencing, a few Steve Reich-esque marimba loops, and John McEntire’s crisp production value. But the innovation develops from McCombs’ partnership with Chicago Underground bassist Noel Kupersmith and guest appearances by a number of Chicago staples as well as Stereolab’s Mary Hansen and Laetitia Sadier. The haunting, lyricless, reverb-laden vocals provided by the women of Stereolab are especially haunting given the recent, tragic death of Hansen. Kupersmith’s beat sequencing on songs like “Name’s Winston, Friends Call Me James” is understated, laying a foundation for the layers of guitar, vibes, and vocals without competing with them.

The instances when McCombs picks up a traditional six-string (i.e. “50 Guitars”) prove his distinct sense of sonority and melodic movement, at times recalling the jazz guitar of Bill Frisell. A reworking of Tortoise’s “The Suspension Bridge at Iguaz