A sense of place has been essential to the music of Brokeback since guitarist/bassist Douglas McCombs first launched the project in 1995. Initially conceived as a solo outlet, the Chicago group has taken on new dimensions over the past two decades, morphing from the lean, pastoral ambience of the first album, Field Recordings from the Cook County Water Table, to the more muscular, taut arrangements and dynamic swells of the last release, Brokeback and the Black Rock, for which McCombs assembled a new quartet lineup. Each album develops with exacting detail, revealing McCombs’s gift for dialing in the essence of a mood, feeling, or distant locale with a handful of reverb-laden guitar tones, elegant and sustained, strategically placed and sparingly deployed. The instrumental landscapes he creates on Illinois River Valley Blues are utterly transportive, evoking familiar open-frontier soundtracks and charting out new sonic territory.
McCombs’s singular approach to guitar and bass, characteristic of his work with Tortoise, is expertly enhanced here by James Elkington (Tweedy, Steve Gunn) on second guitar (moving over from drums on the last record). The two salute one of McCombs’s favorite bands, Television, with latticed dual leads on the stately yet aggressive “On the Move and Vanishing,” while Elkington’s subtle layers of pedal steel and organ burnish more ruminative forays like “Andalusia, IL” and “Ursula.” Their intertwining flights are anchored by the sturdy yet versatile rhythm team of bassist Pete Croke (Exit Verse, Tight Phantomz) and drummer Areif Sless-Kitain (the Eternals), the newest member of Brokeback.