Khruangbin 2024
Photo: David Black / Grandstand Media

Khruangbin Are Still Easygoing and Effortlessly Cool

A LA SALA delivers on what Khruangbin are known for: chill, mostly easygoing guitar melodies backed by a deep rhythm section groove.

Dead Oceans
5 April 2024

Khruangbin are back with the follow-up to 2020’s Mordecai. It’s not like they have taken it easy in the interim. Besides putting out an album of Mordecai Remixes, the collaboration-minded trio recorded Texas Moon, a second EP of songs with blues guitarist Leon Bridges. They also released Ali, a record with West African guitarist Vieux Farka Toure. For A LA SALA, Khruangbin are back to doing their own thing, where grooves and atmosphere set the stage for nearly all of their songs.

Atmosphere is up first, as “Fifteen Fifty-Three” kicks things off with languid guitar strums and relaxed guitar melodies from Mark Speer. Meanwhile, bassist Laura Lee bobs slowly along underneath, and drummer Donald Johnson, Jr. gently lays down a simple, snare-focused beat. It’s a soothing song that feels like a late night in an after-hours lounge. Either that or on the ocean shore as waves lap gently on the beach. Speer has just enough surf-rock in his guitar tone to make the latter scenario plausible.

“May Ninth” is about as laid-back as it gets. A lightly shuffling beat and quietly bouncy bass push the song along while gently chiming guitar arpeggios back up bright, easygoing guitar leads. It’s one of the occasional Khruangbin songs with lyrics, so one can hear Lee singing the refrain, “Waiting for May to come / Hoping for the rain.” As is often the case when they use vocals, they are muted and in the background. Here, the singing mainly adds another color, while the guitar melody remains the main focus.

Khruangbin know their audience is international and multicultural, so when they have prominent vocals, the lyrics are generally straightforward. In “Hold Me Up (Thank You), an upbeat drum groove locks in with a melodic bassline, punctuated by bursts of catchy guitar. Aside from a tasty bridge where Speer locks into an even catchier guitar melody, this groove mostly persists throughout. The vocals here are more prominent, but the lyrics are rudimentary. The first and third time, the lyrics come around: “You have friend and lover / You have sister and brother / You have auntie and uncle / You have father and mother.” The second time, they change it to “Thank you, friend, thank you, lover, / Thank you, sister, thank you, brother,” etc. Crowds in Thailand, Spain, or their hometown of Houston can easily sing along with these lyrics.

Khruangbin shift their approach to groove from track to track. Speer’s guitar generally handles the melody, but how they get there changes quite a bit on A LA SALA. “Pon Pon” is upbeat, with a brisk, hi-hat-centered drum beat, active bass, and distinct rhythm and lead guitar parts. It pulses along for three minutes with very little change aside from a couple of brief whispered bridge breaks late in the song. “Juegos y Nubes”, on the other hand, opens with a loud, distorted guitar intro before slowing down into a slow, head-bobbing feel. Speer’s harsher tone and Johnson, Jr.’s hard snare hits give it a tough, chunkier style than usual.

“Three From Two” gets into laid-back territory again, with Speer playing soulful melodies while Johnson, Jr., and Lee keep their parts rhythmically static. An organ with heavy vibrato plays along in the background, giving the track a bit of a wobbly bed of sound. In contrast, “Ada Jean” also uses organs in a somewhat moody, slightly unsettling way. It ebbs and flows around Speer’s measured, slightly Spanish-style guitar leads. In the song’s second half, one can hear a female voice making gasps and sighs. The guitar brightens up a little as the track nears its end, raising the question of whether the song is supposed to be creepy or sexy.

“A Love International” gives off a distinct 1960s vibe, with hints of “Girl From Ipanema” and the James Bond theme setting the mood. Lee gets a chance to shine here, as her bass has more motion than usual and actively complements Speer’s guitar instead of just holding down the groove. It would be a strong closer, but it’s the penultimate track on the record.

Instead, “Les Petits Gris” finishes out A LA SALA. It’s the third song to feature just guitar and keyboard. The first time, on “Farolim de Felgueiras”, it’s an intriguing change. As a slow guitar solo with static organ chords underneath, the track has a distant, lonely vibe. “Caja de la Sala” is similar but not as distinct. The organ is slightly more interesting because it moves a bit, but the guitar is less compelling. When we get to “Les Petits Gris”, the bass and drums are actively missed. This track has simple piano chords that move back and forth while Speer plays sparingly over the top. It’s not the most compelling musical idea on the record, and at four minutes long, it wears out its welcome.

Despite minor missteps, A LA SALA delivers on what Khruangbin are known for now. It’s a record full of chill, mostly easygoing guitar melodies backed by a deep rhythm section groove. There’s a bit of organ, some tracks with a rhythm guitar, and scattered vocals, but it’s the main trio in the spotlight. This kind of record will please existing fans while welcoming new ones. Khruangbin have a unique combination of laid-back and effortless cool that makes their sound very accessible, especially for listeners who don’t require a lot of vocals and lyrics.

RATING 7 / 10