It’s been 10 years since the last Brokeback album (Looks At The Bird) and in that time quite a lot has changed for Doug McCombs’ side project. For a start, if you want to find them on the internet, you’ll have to negotiate a lot of stuff on cowboys and late night fumblings before you find the band. In addition, Brokeback itself is an entirely different prospect to the band that McCombs had a decade ago. Back then, Brokeback had become a loose amalgam of guest musicians orbiting around the central point of McCombs. Although interesting, it headed away from the notion of what a band is and placed Brokeback firmly in the “project” category.
Black Rock sees Brokeback with a new leaner line up featuring Pete Croke and Chris Hansen (both of Head Of Skulls!), and James Elkington (The Horse’s Ha). The band has been sticking to a schedule of regular rehearsals and constant gigging which has allowed these songs to be shaped and defined by the simple mechanics of operating as an actual band, rather than piecing things together bit by bit in the studio with ideas being accepted from all and sundry. The result might not always be as challenging as previous Brokeback albums, but for the most part this stripped back, “organic” approach hits the mark.
Musically, this is very much a rock album, which might well disappoint those who were hoping for something from the jazzier end of the spectrum. These songs are hardly three or four minute ditties; they are tightly played exploratory adventures in rock ‘n’ roll. The so-delicate-it-might-break opening bars of Will Be Arriving for example are very similar to the kind of repetitive folk inspired work of modern day Earth. As the track progresses however it opens out into Floydian territory. In fact so heavy is the influence of Pink Floyd in the latter stages of the song, that it is a mere shift of a chord away from launching into solo section from Comfortably Numb. The guitar work of Chris Hansen is quite breaktaking here too, and it’s to McCombs’ credit that he allows Hansen to frequently steal the limelight of the course of the album.
The Wire, The Rag And The Payoff is in more familiar territory to those drawn to Brokeback by the Tortoise connection. A slightly more jazzy affair, it never really sits still as it flits between various genres, never quite settling on one for more than a moment. So there’s elements of a creepy black and white detective soundtrack, country and western drama, militaristic drumming, and soaring prog-rock soloing.
Perhaps the cowboy theme of Google searches for Brokeback has rubbed off on the band because there are moments on the album when there’s a definite influence from the likes of Ennio Morricone, and bizarrely enough, the surf twang of The Shadows’ Apache. It’s present in the Western lope of Who Is Bozo Texino? and later on the woozy menace of Gold!
There are a few missteps, most notably on Don’t Worry Pigeon, which is far too lightweight for its own good. As a soundtrack to a holiday programme – inevitably presented by Judith Chalmers – it’d be perfect, but nestled up against the brooding unshaven menace of Gold! it’s way out of its depth. The samba/tango of Tonight At Ten is similarly unchallenging, but is at least shot through with an element of fun.
That aside, Black Rock is a fine record that grows with every listen. When the band close with the bombast of Colossus Of Roads, it’s clear they’ve saved the heaviest for last with the flanging roar of the guitars calling to mind the excesses of Kyuss and the pounding drums of James Elkington finally let off the leash. It’s utterly self indulgent, but frankly a little self indulgence on a Brokeback album is hardly a new thing.