Khruangbin are one of those groups that defy labels. With Laura Lee’s drawn-out funk basslines, the outlaw twang to Mark Speer’s guitar work, and DJ Johnson’s masterfully subtle percussion, it was no surprise that the Houston-based group exploded after last year’s release of addictive sophomore album Con Todo El Mundo. The band’s name is the Thai word for “airplane”, and Lee and Speer first bonded over music and art from Afghanistan and West Asia. With music drawing on psychedelia, soul, and surf from around the globe, there’s no real benefit to wasting time trying to describe the group’s music with narrow genres. There’s only one real question worth contemplating: could Khruangbin get any cooler?
The definitive answer to that question is a resounding yes, as they prove with their newest release. For those of us who spent most of last year listening to Con Todo El Mundo on repeat, Hasta El Cielo will sound familiar as the latter is primarily dub versions of the former. And if Con Todo El Mundo was a sweltering Texas night drive, then Hasta El Cielo is a beachfront sunset. No longer on the attack, Khruangbin relax at last, stretching out tight, red-hot stings into loose, meandering waves – powered by embers, not full flames.
That chill factor is neither a good thing nor a bad thing, inherently, but it makes for an interesting next step for the group. Conceptually, it’s risky to take an album as exciting as Con Todo El Mundo, wring the adrenaline from it, and then send it back into the world. In practice, breezy suits Khruangbin’s music, and the sonic palette is just different enough for a subtle atmospheric shift. There’s nothing lazy about its execution, either; low-level tension simmers beneath the surface. On “Sisters & Brothers”, it’s more smoky and sensual (as opposed to original radiant take “Lady and Man”); on “Mary Always”, playful (as opposed to ferocious “Maria También”). Khruangbin is a chameleon of a band, but one with enough consistency to always be just recognizable enough.
It can be easy to write off a remix album as less worthy of a concerted listen than its source material, but the changes here are delectable from track to track. “Sunny’s Vision” is a particular highlight, adding wavering organs to the dub mix of “Shades of Man” that take it straight to 1970s Bangkok. “Order of Operations” has the strongest bassline on an album riddled with strong basslines. “Hasta El Cielo” is a soft-spoken dream that picks up momentum a minute and a half in and continues to coast between tempos until it touches down for a satisfying end. A couple of bonus Scientist mixes at the end – of “Rules” and “Cómo Te Quiero” – bring percussion to the forefront as a finishing flourish.
Essentially, if you loved Con Todo El Mundo, you’ll like Hasta El Cielo for a lazier day. If you hoped for another groundbreaking record, though, you’ll need to be patient for a little longer. Luckily, you now have the perfect soundtrack to make any wait a little more bearable.