In the space of two albums, Psych-Funk Texas trio Khruangbin have breathed new life into the drum and bass sound with a compelling take on the tropes of the genre. Formed in Houston in 2010 and comprised of Mark Speer on lead guitar, Laura Lee on bass guitar and Donald “DJ” Johnson on drums, Khruangbin originally crafted their unique groove by emulating the music of Eastern and Middle-Eastern bands from the 1970s who were themselves influenced by the American sound of the 1960s. This eclectic and fascinating “mise en abyme” alongside a minimal live recording approach with no multi-tracking and incredibly subtle beats is at the root of Khruangbin’s music.
If The Universe Smiles Upon You (2015) focused on Thai funk music, Con Todo El Mundo drew on Middle Eastern music from the 1970s. Following on from Hasta El Cielo (July 2019), and the Texas Sun EP (February 2020), a collaboration with songwriter and soul singer Leon Bridges, the band returns with Mordechai, released on 26 June 2020 last on the Dead Oceans label.
Traditionally steeped in a very strong Jamaican dub tradition from the outset, every Khruangbin album to date has been hinging on the steady drum beats and bass lines of DJ Johnson and Laura Lee. As stated in many interviews, Laura Lee learned bass guitar by listening to the bass lines from the records of Jamaican recording engineer and producer Hopeton Overton Brown aka Scientist. Acknowledging his overarching influence, their 2019 Hasta El Cielo release consists of dub remixes of the entire Con Todo El Mundo album with the last two tracks featuring remixes by Scientist himself.
The same drum and bass ethic carries on throughout Mordechai. As a mainly instrumental combo, the lead guitar of Mark Speer has traditionally assumed a lyrical role, taking on lengthy solos on most tracks. On the new record however, vocals become a lot more prominent on several songs.
The uplifting “Time (You & I)” is underpinned by infectious Blaxploitation-era jazz funk riffs for instance while on the Latin number “Pelota”, the lead guitar provides the counterpoint to the vocals.
As keen crate diggers, obsessive record collectors and relentless listeners of lesser-known non-Western pentatonic music or sub-genres from around the world, the three musicians keep bringing new influences to the hybrid Khruangbin sound. The band’s website famously generates playlists based on airport codes (“Khruangbin” means airplane in Thai) which can be saved and played on Spotify.
Mordechai introduces the guitar sound of Congolese and Ethiopian music. French Caribbean zouk music is ever present, and the spoken word dialogue between Mark Speer and Laura Lee on “Connaissais de Face” emulates the Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin duos of the late 1960s. There are much stronger Latin influences this time too with nods to Cumbia and Peruvian Chicha.
As well as that, the three official videos released to date, namely “Time (You and I)”, “Pelota” and “So We Won’t Forget” which were made by different directors or creative studios all seem to suggest various visual references to the animated films of Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki.
Ultimately though, the music on Mordechai seems to “bring it all back home” for Khruangbin, a band whose wide-ranging and universal set of references reflects the ethnical and cultural diversity of their home city – Houston, Texas, “a cultural nexus where you can check out country and zydeco, trap rap, or avant-garde opera on any given night.”