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Morse Code In The Modern Age
Thrill Jockey, 2001

Thrill Jockey, 2001

For now, let's just forget that Douglas McCombs is a member of Tortoise and that they've already released an album this year. Let's forget that Tortoise was busy touring the world this year in support of that album. And let's forget they curated the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in the UK. Let's also forget that he's a member of Eleventh Dream Day. So these two projects notwithstanding, he's only released two albums this year. He says he's not really that busy, but it's hard to believe.

The first of those projects is the second release of Brokeback. This time around, he's enlisted Chicago Underground bassist Noel Kupersmith, and their new album is entitled Morse Code In The Modern Age: Across The Americas.

The album is the result of collaborations that took place in various places around the United States, including a session with Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico in Tuscon as well as recordings with James McNew of Yo La Tengo,

Brokeback: Kupersmith & McCombs Brokeback: Kupersmith & McCombsMary Hansen of Stereolab and Tim Foljahn of Two Dollar Guitar, among others. Then McCombs and Kupersmith headed back to Chicago, edited the tapes down and wrote parts to go with and over the collaborations.

Morse Code In The Modern Age consists of three songs that sound like the soundtrack to the day after the end of the world. In "Lives of The Rhythm Experts," there's rumbling and feedback and scratchy pounding sounds and what seems like an orchestra of crickets out in the distance somewhere in a world without light. The apocalypse has come and gone, and this is what we are left with. Eventually a fit of free jazz drumming begins to weave in and out of the mix, but no real rhythm is established.

In "Flat Handed And On The Wing" McCombs and Kupersmith do with their basses what electronics had done in "Lives Of The Rhythm Experts." They manipulate and trap feedback as a lone cornet cries along or a crisp guitar is strummed Spanish-style. The final track, "Running Scared," is the most accessible, with its actual rhythm and Tortoise-like guitar lines.

Ultimately, Brokeback seems more interested in textures and the subtle nuances that occur when sounds are put side-by-side and on top of one another, than with any sort of traditional verse-chorus-verse structures. There are no hooks, so you must pay attention in order to navigate the world they've created. There's a dejected quality to much of the music. The mood is dark blue. It's not a must hear, by any means, but it can be a rewarding listen some late night.

If there's a polar opposite to Brokeback (let's say Tortoise is the equator), it's probably Pullman, who released their second album, Viewfinder, this year. The group is a veritable indie supergroup, with members from Rex, Come, Directions and Tortoise, but the result of this mega-collaboration is probably not what you'd expect—unless you heard their first record, Turnstyles and Junkpiles, that is. Pullman is an acoustic band.

Their first album was recorded entirely with acoustic instruments, but Viewfinder finds the band adding an electric guitar hear and there for texture.

Pullman in action Pullman in actionViewfinder has a Sunday afternoon feel to it. You can almost feel the breeze being shot as you listen. You know there can't be a front porch too far away.

While there are moments when Pullman does sound slightly like Tortoise or Directions, more often than not there's little trace of the histories of the musicians. But that's what side projects are for, right? Pullman is a chance for these guys to put down their electric guitars and synths and electronic gadgets and explore other, more traditional sonic possibilities. At times, however, Viewfinder borders on the new age. There's plenty of major chords to float away upon.

But there are also moments of minor chord drama that seem out of place with the new age pseudo-bliss of much of the album. "Narrow Canyon," which alternates between a slow droner and a quasi-ho-down two-step, and "Felluca" are definite highlights. Still acoustic-based, they are interpretations of acoustic guitar music rather than mirror images. But as the album unfolds, more electric guitars are introduced. "Street Light" sounds like an exercise in whammy bar manipulation, and the solo bass ditty "Quantam Mechanic" is a true anomaly, recalling the dark, hollow atmosphere of parts of Tortoise's first album.

At its best, Viewfinder is an interesting look at what these guys do when they're not making the music they're known for. It is musicians making music for music's sake. When not at its best, however, Viewfinder is somewhat unbalanced and perhaps a bit boring.

Robert Young
October 2001

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