Brokeback Credit: John Sturdy

Since Douglas McCombs’s long-running project Brokeback evolved from a solo endeavor into a quartet lineup seven years ago, he and his cohorts have engaged in an exquisitely patient act of retrenchment and refinement. The striking new Illinois River Valley Blues (Thrill Jockey) is the first record from the group in four years, during which Jim Elkington transferred from drums to the role of second guitarist and Areif Sless-Kitain (Eternals) took over the drum throne. Even as its instrumentals remain dominated by a moody, twangy atmosphere, Brokeback continues to wean itself off the heavy Ennio Morricone vibe that marked its early years in favor of a more rock-soaked attack that prizes the tonal richness of Tom Verlaine’s solo work. Sless-Kitain and bassist Pete Croke hold down slow-moving grooves that provide McCombs and Elkington ballast for their layered chords and extended lines that both lacerate and glow. The entwined patterns are bittersweet in their melodic content, steeped in a sadness that can impel the listener to shed a few tears if the mood hits right. While a couple of songs feature lovely wordless vocals from Amalea Tshilds, a complement to the gentle cooing Stereolab’s Mary Hansen brought to early Brokeback records, there’s no question the record is all about the guitars. Most of the tunes embrace a measured, midtempo motion, but “On the Move and Vanishing” salutes vintage Television with a telltale lick borrowed from the classic “See No Evil” and interplay worthy of Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. All of the tracks are originals save “Spanish Venus,” a lush ballad by cornetist Rob Mazurek that teeters on a nifty stuttering bassline.   v