Thursday, April 15, 2021
New Music: With 'Mordechai,' Khruangbin follows inner compass to...

New Music: With ‘Mordechai,’ Khruangbin follows inner compass to success

The Houston global-psych trio adds voices to its latest album, upping the stakes and carving out something unique


Attaining the title “DJ’s DJ” during the early 2000s, a certain heyday for San Francisco’s musical landscape, was one of the loftiest forms of a compliment any music presenter could attain. It meant You did You. Remaining tuned to that inner ear. Opting for feel over algorithm. Not an easy task.

Understanding the monetization of jungle and drum and bass on the horizon, comprehending the 2-step garage phenomenon, snickering at progressive house becoming a molly delivery system for the masses, and celebrating true-school hip-hop amidst the industry boom of shiny shirt rap. You know, the joints that ended with an explosion? Yeah. Those joints. Tuff landscape to maneuver.

It’s the same compass used by a little band out of Houston called Khruangbin (pronounced KRUNG-bin).
Yes. They did snatch their name from a Thai word that means airplane. Heard of them? Well, If you’ve caught some “groove adjacent” moments from the HBO show  ‘Barry” or started nodding your head to a funky-ass Dos Equis commercial, I think you have. Matter of fact their very Isley Brothers’ leaning ballad “Friday Morning” from 2018’s breakout “Con Todo El Mundo” just popped up on the latest Theo Parrish project “We Are All Gorgeous Monsterss,” track four. Their Venn diagrams, since being introduced to the world by DJ Bonobo, reads astronomical.

They backed up Wu-Tang at last year’s Desert Daze Music festival, and supposedly Jay-Z was spotted in a Los Angeles record store, buying up all their wax. What’s the deal? Boil it down to two things: They have a hyper-specific sound constantly getting tweaked with each project. And…well, guitarist Mark Speers gave it up best to The New York Times recently. “I’m also really, really stubborn. Like, let’s just do what we want to do. We’ve gotten to this point by doing what we like. Apparently, people like what we do. Let’s just keep doing that.”

See what I mean. Feel over algorithm.

Mordechai, released June 26th, finds the Houston trio adding their voices to every track for the first time.  Citing the vocal arrangements of War and Santana as reference points for the tweak. This time the arrangements cruise through post-disco, soulful blends that reference Roy Ayers and Sade while keeping that Thai Funk; a global melange of dub, soul, psych, French pop, and breakbeats as the main inspiration. Other groups bordering on the precipice of mainstream global bankability would keep the product vanilla boring. Not them.

The Texas-based power trio uses dub, elements of surf music, and psychedelia to spread a contemporary version of instrumental global music. Thai-funk, middle eastern styled vamps or disco to go strut; all interwoven components in their rhythmic assault. There is a timelessness that hypnotizes folks. Speer’s presence on guitar, even when going for it aggressively, comes off serenading in style. Lyrical, not over-embellished. No shredding. Call them ESG on shrooms….it’s a fair assessment. Guitarist Speer, bassist Laura Lee, and drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson, who played in the gospel band at St. John’s United Methodist Church in downtown Houston (the home church of Beyoncé, Solange and the rest of the Knowles family), collectively defer to their own inner compass. How?

At the close of 2018, a marathon year supporting their breakthrough album Con Todo El Mundo, adored by both fans and critics, they recorded an updated version of Vince Guaraldi’s’ “Christmastime Is Here.” The bottom-heavy, rhythmically enhanced take on the quintessential cool Yuletide joint was released just before their North American fall/winter tour. Challenged at the corner of art and commerce, this mindful band opted for craft. Personality.

“Hasta El Cielo” a dub disco version of their 2018 Con Todo El Mundo, was a Compass Point, Tom Tom Club-type left turn. It featured two bonus dubs by renowned Jamaican producer Scientist. Another conscious choice. Then earlier this year “Texas Sun”, the band’s collaborative EP with R&B singer Leon Bridges, debuted atop the Americana/Folk Albums list and reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Emerging Artists chart in February. Bridges, whose sound harks back to a ’60s soul motif, put on his best Marvin Gaye ‘lover man’ persona for the earworm caramel joint ‘C-Side” with the band showcasing their low-end frequency chops. Another unexpected left-turn to success. Both artists who hail from Texas, Bridges from San Antonio, bonded over the multiplicity in genres that swirl about their home state.

“Mordechai” pulls inspiration from Pakistan, Korea, and West Africa, incorporating strains of Indian chanting boxes and Congolese syncopated guitar. But more than anything, it reps their Houston.
An eclectic megalopolis-where country, trap, zydeco, or chopped and screwed textures-inspired their essence. Shaped that feel. Formed that inner ear.

John-Paul Shiver
John-Paul Shiver has been contributing to 48 Hills since 2019. His work as an experienced music journalist and pop culture commentator has appeared in the Wire, Resident Advisor, SF Weekly, Bandcamp Daily, PulpLab, AFROPUNK, and Drowned In Sound.

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