I was under the impression that Brokeback died with Mary Hansen. True, the band started as a side project that bassist Douglas McCombs tinkered with while windy city post-rockers Tortoise were taking siestas. But over the years, Brokeback turned from one man’s fascination into a nebulous collective of improvisers that started acquiring members from other genres such as jazz (Rob Mazurek, Chad Taylor) and pop (Hansen and Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab). By the time they made their third album Looks at the Bird, Brokeback’s personnel had gently puffed out into something that looked more like a social club than a band. So when the Brokeback name fell silent after the release of their third album, I assumed that Hansen’s untimely passing forced McCombs to close the book on this particular chapter of his career. Yet, ten years after Looks at the Bird (almost to the day, too), a substantially trimmed lineup of Brokeback returns with the release of Brokeback and the Black Rock. So what has a ten year break done to Brokeback? Is Brokeback and the Black Rock a Chinese Democracy for pastoral rock fusion? And are these concerns even worth registering? My answers are not much, no and probably not.
Brokeback as a collective of mad geniuses appears to be the thing of the past. Brokeback and the Black Rock finds them operating just as most conventional bands do; four members with very straightfoward roles. McCombs and Peter Croke double up on bass. James Elkington plays the drums while Chris Hansen brings the guitar. Other than some additional organ and guitar from Elkington, that’s the band. No painstakingly sequenced compositions from Noel Kupersmith, no doctored cornet from Rob Mazurek. This is the boiled down Brokeback, built for easy travel. Brokeback and the Black Rock‘s sound reflects this notion, almost as if one of the city’s chief trend-setters got tired of reinventing the wheel each and every time one of his bands hits the studio.
Brokeback and the Black Rock is at least following in the footsteps of its predecessor. Brokeback’s first two full-length releases were heavy on mystery, atmosphere and “songs” that took their good ole jolly time wrapping themselves up. This was especially true for the sprawling Morse Code in the Modern Age, a wonderfully formless piece of work that no one could stylistically name. Brokeback and the Black Rock substitutes mood with pretty sounds and intrigue with repetition. The musicianship is more professional than inspired. The guitar work handled by Hansen, or McCombs or Elkington or whoever is playing guitar at whichever time, is particularly tasty. A Floydian slip here, a dabble in the Frisellian open field there—it serves its purpose. Regretably, that’s a far as this Brokeback is willing to go. The noir-ish “The Wire, the Rag, and the Payoff” and a positively radiant “Don’t Worry Pigeon” sound like they could have life outside the album in a live setting.
Of all of Brokeback’s albums, Brokeback and the Black Rock is probably their least unique. It is by no means below-average, but you may develop a fondness for the inconsistent qualities of Field Recordings from the Cook County Water Table, an album where each track—for better or worse—would plunge.