Two artists return home. Must their music evoke melancholy and despair?
In Brokeback’s new Thrill Jockey release “Illinois River Valley Blues,” the setting is “The Canyons of Illinois” but the mindset is of nostalgia. The twenty-year-old, multi-instrumentalist band from Chicago has long dabbled in post-rock, a music genre known for its blending of conventional rock music with non-traditional sonic textures and timbres. Lead instrumentalist Douglas McCombs, known for his work with Tortoise, asserts, “to me a song is not worth writing if it doesn’t have a strong sense of melancholy.” His album is biographical and geographic. “I remember hearing the trains at night while I was in bed and knowing they had just come from Chillicothe,” he says. On the closing track “Night Falls on Chillicothe,” his guitar trembles.
On the album’s gorgeous standout hit and lead track “Ride Ahead and Light the Way for Me,” McCombs portrays the pastoral expanse of the Midwest. A reverberating trance-induced guitar plods forward, as the song’s title demands. The track features the only vocals on the album, the a-cappella ahhs of Amalea Tshilds, which, like in the Beatles’ “Because,” seem to purposefully evoke a sense of bewilderment. Hmm, where are we…? Ooh, but look how beautiful it is… What did McCombs seek to find back at home in Illinois on this album? The story is simple: at home there is always despair, yet you always return.
Meg Duffy, a.k.a. Hand Habits, is busy. She’s been touring as a backup with various artists (Kevin Morby, Weyes Blood) and works miscellaneous side jobs. On her debut release off of Woodsist, “Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void),” Duffy seeks stillness. Her songs, like her album title, are expansive. “Wildly Idle…” is a wintery album – soothing and stripped-down, recorded in upstate New York, close to Duffy’s childhood home outside Albany. “I’ll hold you like you’re the only thing I’ve ever had,” she repeats in “Flower Glass.” If home is a wide expanse for McCombs, it is an intimate but empty place—a void—for Duffy. Her embrace of this void provides the album its spiritual depth. In “All The While,” she purposefully summons her despair forward: “Bring me to the deepest pit, you can push me right off the edge.” Inevitably, Duffy is busy touring again and has moved on to Los Angeles. Will the sunshine brighten her sound? Do we want it to?