As bassist for alternative rock heroes Eleventh Dream Day and multi-instrumentalist in post-rock frontrunners Tortoise, Doug McCombs is recognized for his key roles in a pair of Chicago-based musical institutions. He’s also beloved for his instrumental band Brokeback, which has returned with the spacious and evocative “Illinois River Valley Blues” album.
The album’s title suits Brokeback’s plaintive and reflective tone, which often suggests affinity for arid soundtrack scores by Ennio Morricone or the wafting, languid beauty of Bill Frisell’s unhurried guitar soundscapes. The album and songs like “Night Falls on Chillicothe” also trace directly to McCombs’ past. “It’s about my memories of growing up along the Illinois River,” says the longtime Chicago resident. “I was born in Peoria, and grew up in a small town called Pekin. My grandparents lived near Chillicothe, and that was where I would catch the train to Chicago sometimes.”
Ahead of an East Coast tour during late spring, Brokeback is performing an album release show at Constellation with guest Azita Youseffi playing organ. “We’ll be playing the whole record,” says McCombs.
Brokeback’s mood is one of isolation, perhaps coupled with a yearning to connect. “It’s a feeling of melancholy,” says McCombs. “It’s not meant to be depressing, though. ‘Contemplative’ is a good way to characterize it. I usually try to avoid naming other artists when describing Brokeback, but Roy Orbison’s music is an example of something I love. It’s introspective and personal, but it can also be uplifting.”
Many of the players who helped create 2013’s “Brokeback and the Black Rock” remain onboard, although Jim Elkington has changed positions from drummer to guitarist. He and McCombs create intertwining lines and textures on songs like “On the Move and Vanishing.” The approach is sometimes reminiscent of influential New York post-punk band Television.
“Throughout the years, I think my main struggle has been to not just imitate Television,” says McCombs with a laugh. “A lot of my harmonic sensibility and the way I think about music is based upon that one record, ‘Marquee Moon.’ I love that record to this day as much I did the first time I heard it.”
McCombs praises his bandmates, including Elkington, bassist Pete Croke and drummer Areif Sless-Kitain. “The collaborators might change, but the people I play with are very important to the music,” says McCombs. “I don’t write everything myself. I may present the body of a song, but one of the other guys will suggest the bridge or some interesting detail that makes the song work.”
Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.