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Illinois River Valley Blues

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. Thematically this is McCombs’s most personal offering yet, reflecting on his early years growing up along the Illinois River corridor between Peoria and Chicago. The sepia-toned opener Ride Ahead and Light the Way for Me is drawn from memories of evening rides on the river with his father, while the noir album bookend Night Falls on Chillicothe is named for a river town north of Peoria near where McCombs’s grandparents lived.
Though the inspiration is McCombs’s, the execution is wholly a group effort. With the same instrumentation and mostly the same lineup as the previous album, the band stretches its leader’s eternal fascination with the roots of American guitar music in bold new directions. A serpentine mystique runs through Rise, Fernanda, Rise!, and Cairo Levee conjures a desert atmosphere closer to the Sahara than the American southwest. Side one of the album closes with a moody, meditative take on Spanish Venus, a ballad written by cornetist and sometime Brokeback collaborator Rob Mazurek. Several songs feature lush, multi-layered vocals by Amalea Tshilds (the Paulina Hollers), who made a deep impression on McCombs with a spellbinding a cappella performance a couple years ago. Illinois River Valley Blues is a winding, wistful travelogue that not only captures darker textures but mines their depths.

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