splendid > reviews > 1/9/2003
Looks at the Bird
Thrill Jockey

Format Reviewed: CD

Soundclip: "Lupé"

Buy me now
I'm sure that there's a complex, inside-joke-intensive meaning behind a title like Looks at the Bird, but if you want to describe Brokeback's sound, birds are a good start. Indeed, you're safe with almost any flight metaphor. Brokeback's music is built upon gentle, sweeping, elegant arcs, delivered with the economical movement and effortless beauty of a soaring bird. It moves forward with the concerted confidence and intangible loneliness of an airplane wing viewed from a window seat, chopping resolutely through cloudy filigree. It occasionally projects the same air of dogged, exhaustion-tinged determination -- or, if you prefer, measured but sometimes maddeningly modest progress -- as the passenger cabin of a 767 at 2:00 a.m.

Looks at the Bird is Brokeback's first full-length since 1999's Field Recordings from the Cook County Water Table, and makes significant progress in the gradual evening-out of creative responsibilities between founder Doug McCombs (Tortoise, Eleventh Dream Day, Pullman, Abilene) and longtime contributor Noel Kupersmith. McCombs started Brokeback in order to more fully explore the potential of the bass guitar, particularly the Fender 6, as a lead instrument and source of textural interaction in a less structured sonic environment. To flesh out his bass-heavy tunes, he called on the services of various luminaries -- mostly Chicago scenesters, plus a handful of names from the Tortoise rolodex. Kupersmith, otherwise best known for his work with Chicago Underground, quickly became a staple of Brokeback's live performance, and his contributions eventually grew into a sort of junior-partnership. Here, his duties have once again expanded; he now shares songwriting credit with McCombs.

Of course, unless you were present during the writing sessions, it's hard to ascertain the precise impact of Kupersmith's involvement, but Brokeback is definitely not quite the same creature it was in 1999. Whereas Field Recordings was spartan, sometimes even desolate, Looks at the Bird is warmer and more secretive -- a little like peering through steamed-up windows at a holiday party to which you were not invited. There's more detail in these pieces -- though it's often shimmering and vague -- and as such, a little more "musicality". Several tracks, including "Everywhere Down Here" and opener "From the Black Current", flirt with the sort of de facto fifties/Southwestern Dick-Dale-on-codeine vibe that's inevitable when a heavily reverbed bass is your primary instrument. Others, most notably "Name's Winston, Friends Call Me James", betray the lingering jazziness that dogs any Tortoise-related project.

You'll also notice a modest IDM edge on "Lupé" and "The Wind-Up Bird", both of which sound like they were recorded over old Oval session tapes. The electronic squelches, burbles and crackles are distinctly background-level, foundation-type stuff -- "Lupé" in particular seems eager to struggle clear of them. It's a little like listening to a Mouse on Mars track turned inside-out, organic elements smothering all but the most persistent bits of electronic rhythm.

Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier and the late Mary Hansen provide guest vocals on "Name's Winston, Friends Call Me James", "In the Reeds" and "Pearl's Dream" (the last, one of the disc's two covers, drawn from Walter Schumann's Night of the Hunter score). This gives Looks at the Bird an extra measure of marketability among Stereolab completists, not to mention a bittersweet air in the wake of Hansen's death, but the familiarity of their performance does a mild disservice to the music itself. There's nothing at all deficient in Hansen and Sadier's performance, but can't McCombs look a little further afield for his collaborators? A different, more lucid and mature voice -- perhaps one drawn from outside of the scene's incestuous pool of collaborators -- could help to move Brokeback beyond the post-rock ghetto. Imagine the potential of Neko Case or Lisa Kekaula, or even Marianne Faithfull, in this context.

Additional guests include Chicago Underground's Chad Taylor (drums) and Rob Mazurek, who is to the cornet what Jon Rauhouse is to pedal steel (to wit, a go-to guy). The omnipresent John McEntire provides organ and rhythmic support, while Nobukazu Takemura collaborator Aki Tsuyuko, on fluteorgan and reed organ, gives the music much of its bleary-eyed dreaminess. As for the principals, McCombs mostly sticks with Brokeback's inspiration, the Fender 6, while Kupersmith tackles double bass, vibes and whatever else is needed. There is a reassuring, almost stolid purity to this approach; Brokeback is a "high concept" band, and the concept is taken seriously.

However, while Looks at the Bird's expanded arrangements are more conventionally "listenable" than much of Field Recordings, this comes at a small price. None of these newer songs can quite equal the sheer presence of Field Recordings' spartan, sustained pieces; those plodding, resonant epics had a specific texture and gravity not found here. On the other hand, Brokeback's extended aural meditations were arguably of interest only to McCombs and other bassists -- particularly in a live setting, where much sitting down (and worse) ensued among the audience -- whereas Looks at the Bird promises a more intriguing performance and greater replayability. It's a notable step in the group's evolution, albeit of a "walking on four legs instead of two" level of magnitude rather than, say, "crawling out of the sea and evolving lungs".

It's still a bit spartan for some tastes, of course, but Looks at the Bird is a timely move forward for Brokeback and the McCombs/Kupersmith creative partnership. They've proven that they can share songwriting duties; the next, far more challenging stage is to challenge each other -- to physically drag Brokeback out of Tortoise's shadow and explore new ground. New genres, new tempos, new progressions, new collaborators -- all of these could establish Brokeback once and for all as a distinct musical entity rather than a quirky, intermittently inspired side-project. But for now, Looks at the Bird is a step in the right direction.



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