Brokeback -  Illinois River Valley Blues (Thrill Jockey)

Tortoise side project return with evocative trip downstream taking in New Wave and Latin influences

Released Feb 24th, 2017 via Thrill Jockey / By Norman Miller
Brokeback -  Illinois River Valley Blues (Thrill Jockey) Brokeback are the ever-evolving side-project of Tortoise and Eleventh Dream Day's Chicago-based guitarist/bassist Doug McCombs, on the go now for two decades. Each album provides an instrumental landscape that taps into a different vibe, from sparse pastoral ambience of the 1999 debut Field Recordings From The Cook County Water Table to the more muscular dynamism of 2013's Brokeback And The Black Rock.

McCombs is joined here by James Elkington (Tweedy, Steve Gunn) on second guitar (moving over from drums on the last record), with rhythm backing from bassist Pete Croke (Exit Verse, Tight Phantomz) and drummer Areif Sless-Kitain (the Eternals), a newcomer to the Brokeback gang. Subtle occasional vocal splashes come from Amalea Tshilds (the Paulina Hollers).

This latest offering, produced by John McEntire (Tortoise, Stereolab, Yo La Tengo) heads into new musical territory again. The title nods to McCombs' early years growing up along the Illinois River corridor between Peoria and Chicago, though McCombs keeps specific memories for the tracks that bookend the album.

The opener Ride Ahead And Light The Way For Me - think melodic post-rock bass growl mixed with loose bluesy guitar flourishes - draw on memories of evening rides on the river with his father, while the contemplative Night Falls On Chillicothe refers to his memories of falling asleep to the sound of night trains that had come from a nearby town.

But rather than an Illinois vibe, much of the album seems infused by sounds of Spain and Latin America. Add to that acoustic and stylistic inflections that conjure up a host of unexpected references to other musicians.

Tom Verlaine comes to mind in the jangling intricate crafting of On The Move And Vanishing – McCombs happily admits to a passion for 70s New Wave legends Television – while the mix of reverbed strut-meets-60s-Western vibe of Psychology Active (Finding You) suggests The Shadows! At other times, the textured virtuosity of the guitar arrangements echoes David Gilmour's eponymous 1978 solo album.

Latino moods shine in several tracks. If you want to refer to dances, you can pick out a quirky fandango allied to pitter-patter drums on The Canyons Of Illinois, the stirring Mexican cantina joy of Rise, Fernanda, Rise!, and the seductive tango licks that join with little bass trills on the excellent Spanish Venus (written by cornet playing Brokeback collaborator Rob Mazurek).

Not everything quite comes off. Ursula, for example, starts off with a gorgeous poignant reflectiveness but then stumbles into a bombastic finale, while Cairo Levee veers way too close to kitsch 1980s cocktail bar music.

Overall, though, Illinois River Valley Blues is a beautifully crafted exploration of guitar moods and textures, shot through with a strong sense of place and wistfulness. β€œTo me a song is not worth writing if it doesn't have a strong sense of melancholy,” says McCombs. But he's no reason to feel melancholy about this.