Douglas McCombs’s third CD under the Brokeback moniker displays more (conventional) song structure than its precursors, yet retains an airy, almost lazy feel. Again, McCombs’s Fender six-string bass is prominent and the contributing musicians amount to a veritable who’s who of the Soma/Chicago sound: multi-instrumentalist/producer John McEntire of Tortoise (McCombs’s musical alma mater); bassist Noel Kupersmith, drummer Chad Taylor, and cornetist Rob Mazurek of Chicago Underground Duo/Trio/Quartet; vocalists Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen (who was tragically killed on her bicycle in December) of Stereolab; and Japanese flautist/reed organist Aki Tsuyuko.
“From the Black Current” (berry punny name?) opens with bowed upright bass and the six-string electric—the eerie twang that carries the albums melodies. It sounds like Ennio Morricone on downers, as does much of the album. Although the orchestration that follows is more complex, the opener establishes a characteristic use of space and tension; while not exactly menacing, it’s not quite music from the heart of space, or jazz, or rock.
Next, “Lupe” adds electronic blips and bleeps and a marimba (?) loop. Electronics, particularly static soundscapes, resurface, but the dominant sounds are more organic than most soma studios releases—the drums are brushed, not looped. . “Lupe” also features Mazurek’s cornet (whose performances in such structured settings as this or his own Quartet best his free-form Duo improvisations). “Name’s Winston, Friends Call Me James” introduces whispery Stereolab oohs and aahs, and “Everywhere Down Here,” a standout melody, features decidedly wistful electric guitar over more bowed bass. “In the Reeds” manages a dreamier, almost sublime feel, with a sparse string arrangement and a flute as well as an upbeat (relatively speaking) tick-tock bass line.
“50 guitars” opens with a strummed harp à la the Cinematic Orchestra; despite the name, a single guitar weaves the melodic thread through this sparse composition. Next, Brokeback’s rendition of the Tortoise’s “The Suspension Bridge at Iguaza Falls,” a satisfying, if succinct, composition of swells and releases. Again there is the slightest hint of a Western score: A militaristic snare drum heightens the tension, as if a showdown looms. (It is a slight irony that this tune should emerge a post-rock standard, while the last Tortoise album, Standards, contained so little of similar merit.)
“The Wind-Up Bird” (named for the Haruki Murakami novel?) juxtaposes minimalist staticy electronic blips and meandering twang. The hybridization works, if unremarkably, because of the space between the sounds. Throughout the course of Looks at the Bird McCombs leaves notes hanging in the air.
The closer, “Pearls Dream,” is taken from the film, The Night of the Hunter. It is really two songs fused together, somewhat awkwardly. It begins with a rumbling bass solo (the six-string tends to fuzz in the lower registers) and ends with an unusually abstract vocal vignette about houseflys atop shimmering guitar and vibraphone.
Unsurprisingly, Looks at the Birds recalls the earlier, less computer-driven Tortoise, but it also calls to mind guitar-oriented instrumental acts Scenic and Lanterna. These lackadaisical tunes don’t demand attention, but are sufficiently complex in their orchestration to warrant repeat listening. Though not aggressive, their melodies are persistent, and the album’s lazy feel suits its timeless quality.