Basses Loaded

Chicago's Brokeback takes some of the noise out of Illinois.

Further exploring Ennio Morricone-style vistas, ambient sound poems and even a moody cover version of Roy Orbison's "Running Scared," Brokeback enlisted members of Yo La Tengo, Calexico, Stereolab and Two Dollar Guitar for each of its first two studio efforts.

"I always feel that anything I write is made better when there's been some interaction with other musicians to make it happen," says McCombs, who likewise moonlights in Pullman and Eleventh Dream Day.

"To me, that's what makes music interesting: having feedback between people that you get along with."

How can we be broke when we still have checks? 
Noel Kupersmith (left) and Doug McCombs are 
Brokeback.
How can we be broke when we still have checks? Noel Kupersmith (left) and Doug McCombs are Brokeback.

Collaborative spirit definitely fuels Brokeback's third release from last year, Looks at the Bird. A sprawling and graceful affair, the migratory-themed album stays true to its totem with flighty melodies, elegant arcs and much musical swooping and soaring. On board are drummer Chad Taylor and cornettist Rob Mazurek (Kupersmith's cronies in the Underground Quartet), plus Archer Prewitt and Sam Prekop from The Sea and Cake. There's also some nifty flute-organ noodling from Aki Tsuyuko ("50 Guitars") to round out Bird's overall glossy production values by Tortoise's famed hide-beater, McEntire, making it Brokeback's most accessible album so far.

Arguably the finest track, "Name's Winston, Friends Call Me James" showcases the dreamy, wordless vocals of the late Mary Hansen, who died in a biking accident in London in December 2002. The former Stereolab chanteuse also provides the record's only discernible nursery-rhymed lyrics, in "Pearl's Dream," borrowed, eerily enough, from the 1955 drama Night of the Hunter: "Once upon a time there was a pretty fly/He had a pretty wife, this pretty fly/But one day she flew away...flew away."

"Even though I've probably seen that movie fifteen times," McCombs says, "I came out of the theater with a friend of mine two or three years ago, and we both had the same idea: Mary's voice would be perfect for it."

One of the last things that Hansen would ever commit to tape, "Dream" certainly closes out the album out on a bittersweet note. But currently touring on the strength of Bird, McCombs and Kupersmith have managed to keep the vocalist's memory alive by using the keyboards of Califone's Jim Becker to mimic all of Hansen's oohing and cooing arrangements, albeit digitally; drummer Tim Mulvena complete the expanded live quartet.

"Audiences have really been responding to us," McCombs says of Brokeback's current sweep across America. "The fact that we have been able to build up a fan base is enough for me. Whether or not the press actually gets it right every time is not that important. At least people are showing an interest in it. It would really suck to be doing this, knowing that you're doing what you love, and having nobody respond to it. Ultimately, I don't have a lot to complain about."

Light is the head that wears the post-rock crown.

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