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Basses Loaded

Tortoise co-founder Doug McCombs no longer bristles at the term "post-rock." But during the mid-'90s, he and his musical cohorts from the Windy City -- fellow co-founder/drummer/ keyboardist/vibe player John Herndon, producer/drummer/vibe player John McEntire, percussionist Dan Bitney and guitarist Jeff Parker -- couldn't read one single review about their band that didn't reference the dang-blasted P-word.

"A British journalist coined that phrase about us," laments McCombs from his home in Chicago's Logan Square. "He was definitely trying to create a movement in the press, lumping a bunch of different bands together. And in a typical British way, trying to create a frenzy and make up a movement that didn't exist. At the time, this guy was placing a lot of baggage on our band -- like we were the saviors that were going to destroy rock or whatever -- when in fact we were all big fans of rock and roll of all kinds. So it was kind of weird for us. We didn't really want to be portrayed as anti-rock heroes or anything."

"I don't have as big a problem about it as I used to," adds the soft-spoken, 41-year-old bassist. "It's a phrase that everybody uses now."

Post-rock. Post-mortem. Post Toasties. Who really cares?

At least Brokeback, McCombs's side band with fellow bass geek Noel Kupersmith, should avoid Ye Olde England's current batch of hyperbolic marketing labels, including "electroclash," "garage revival" and the dreaded "screamo."

Formed in 1999 as McCombs's one-man exploration into the melodic possibilities of the Fender six-string bass, Brokeback still faces a bigger challenge than being pigeonholed by music-industry hucksters. The band is yet another Chicago-based, incestuous, high-concept-leaning art project living in the shadow of Tortoise, for crush sake! And with so many avant-jazz offshoots already glutting the City of Broad Shoulders (Shrimp Boat, Gastr Del Sol, Falstaff, Coctails -- the list goes on and on), do we all really need another one of those?

Apparently, McCombs and Kupersmith think so.

"Texturally, there's probably some similarities with Tortoise," McCombs allows, "but Brokeback is meant to be a little more delicate-sounding. I personally feel that the material itself is really different, because the process of writing it was different. In Tortoise, there's five of us throwing around ideas, and stuff becomes more convoluted. I guess the end result with Tortoise is more surprising. In Brokeback, there's just two of us, and the end result will vaguely resemble what we had in mind."

Something of a stylistic hydra -- a sinewy, shape-shifting musical beast that seems to grow back two heads for every one it loses -- Brokeback nonetheless specializes in a fluid and soothing wall of low-end sound. Less rhythm-driven than its forebears (Tortoise often featured not only two drummers, but two vibe players), the pair combines melodic, jazzy inflections within looser frameworks for a distinctively open-ended feel. Taking its name from what McCombs describes as the "weird, incongruous hunchback" from Carson McCullers's Ballad of the Sad Cafe, Brokeback often conjures a dark, gothic and cinematic novella come graphically to life.

"In the past, our goals were not as ambitious, and we were a little more minimal," McCombs says. "But when I started to incorporate Noel's input a lot more into the group, our focus shifted. Now we write everything together -- it's pretty evenly split."

Kupersmith, an upright-bassist for the Chicago Underground Quartet in addition to the Franco-centric Monade (with Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier), automatically doubles the rumble in a band that already showcases McCombs's twangless thunderbroom.

"I have to say that most of my heroes have been from the rock world," McCombs notes. "Mike Watt is definitely one -- not just because he's a bass player, but because he's just fuckin' getting out there and doing it and not worrying about becoming a star or anything else. He's doing it because he loves it, and he still has a great outlook on it after doing it thirty years."

Watt isn't the only low-end font of inspiration for McCombs and Kupersmith.

"Some of my first experiences really listening to bass players was, like, Jimmy Garrison from the classic Coltrane quartet," McCombs says. "And Charlie Haden from Ornette Coleman's group. Mingus, of course. But more recently, Noel has turned me on to Ellington's bassist, Jimmy Blanton, and unbeknownst to me, he's considered one of the most innovative bass players of the twentieth century. He's the guy that all those other guys were cuing off of -- one of the first to really bring a lot of melody into the bass."

While honing his own minimalist sound on 1999's debut Field Recordings From Cook County Water Table and its followup, 2001's Morse Code in the Modern Age: Across the Americas (both on Thrill Jockey), McCombs chose depth of expression over musical theory. He and Kupersmith also mixed in plenty of natural sound effects in the spirit of Marlon Perkins's Wild Kingdom, most notably through the bugling elk and chattering fowl heard on Field Recordings' "The Wilson Ave. Bridge at the Chicago River, 1953."

"That happens to be one of my favorite spots in the city," say McCombs, who originally hails from tiny Pekin, Illinois, the marigold capitol of the world. "[The Wilson Bridge] is sort of a weird, pastoral anomaly in the middle of Chicago. Suddenly you leave the urban landscape, and you could be on a country road. When I wrote that tune, I was imagining what it might have looked like back then."

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."

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.