Except for Eleventh Dream Day, every major project Douglas McCombs has participated in has had its genesis in exploring new contexts for the bass. Nearly a decade ago, inspired by Dos--the bass duo of former Minuteman Mike Watt and his wife, Kira--McCombs and drummer John Herndon founded Mosquito, a bass and drum duo that quickly grew into the much more complicated quintet Tortoise. About three years ago McCombs went back to basics again as the solo act Brokeback, performing with only a six-string bass and a series of delay and volume pedals. On the new Field Recordings From the Cook County Water Table (Thrill Jockey), by himself and with guest musicians, he plays several roles: he anchors the rhythm, carves out the structure of the tune, and crafts the spare, haunting, pretty melodies. The album often echoes the spooky atmosphere of Ennio Morricone's music for westerns and Ry Cooder's Paris, Texas sound track--a melancholy twang that instantly evokes the parched landscapes of the southwest. "The Great Banks," for instance, strips "Along the Banks of Rivers"--a tune McCombs wrote for Tortoise's Millions Now Living Will Never Die--down to a forlorn melody, then embellishes it with sorrowful whistling and a line of la-las by Stereolab's Mary Hansen. But Brokeback isn't a one-trick pony: with the addition of Rob Mazurek's muted cornet, "After the Internationals" sounds like a buried Ornette Coleman gem, while "The Wilson Ave. Bridge at the Chicago River, 1953" moves from dusky quietude--with lovely scraped strings by upright bassist Noel Kupersmith--to a sturdy bass line that would sound at home on a Carl Davis-produced soul session. Both Kupersmith and Mazurek, who'll open the show in a version of the Chicago Underground Trio with guitarist Jeff Parker, will join McCombs here. Also on the bill are the Eternals, whose two recent 12-inch singles on Thrill Jockey accurately capture both the band's strengths and its weaknesses. On tunes like "By This Time Tomorrow" and "Etaucave," Wayne Montana and Dan Fliegel's hypnotic bass and drum grooves are matched by terse keyboard licks and elusive melodies stylishly delivered in Damon Locks's otherworldly croon, but sometimes the parts don't add up: on "Atom and Evil" the rhythms are intriguingly complex, but the dubby ephemera on top of them doesn't really go anywhere. Live, luckily, Locks is usually compelling enough as a front man to get the trio over any static spots. Friday, 9 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western; 773-276-3600. PETER MARGASAK
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chris Toliver.