Laura Lee from Khruangbin performs at the Glastonbury Festival in June 2017. (Courtesy Raph_PH via Flickr)

Khruangbin delivers contemplative surf-rock with ‘Con Todo El Mundo’

Texas surf-funk-soul indie rock three-piece Khruangbin doesn’t need a lead singer to make music that breathes. After captivating listeners with 2015’s “The Universe Smiles Upon You,” the Thai-funk-inspired trio whose name in Thai translates as “airplane,” soars to new heights, delivering 2018’s most dynamic and accessible instrumental album yet. The band’s new sophomore album, “Con Todo El Mundo,” neither aggravates listeners into progressive jazz-rock fueled frustration sessions nor defaults to listeners’ evening study music playlists. 

In “Con Todo El Mundo,” Khruangbin orchestrates lush rock numbers that shroud listeners in reverb and contemplation. A tight rhythm section bolstered by lively James Jamerson-inspired sound from bassist Laura Lee locks listeners into drummer Donald Johnson’s understated but vital groove. Guitarist Mark Speer’s nimble playing gives life back to the classic 50s and 60s Fender-style surf sound for eager indie listeners and washed-up baby boomers alike. 

Khruangbin thrives while channeling its predecessors. The album opens with the delightfully misanthropic “Cómo Me Quieres,” a song that builds desolation with an intensity that would make Ennio Morricone smile. “Lady and Man” sees the group switch gears from Eastern modal surf-rock to funky, broken-down, shouty choruses with ease. “Maria También” showcases Speer’s athletic guitar-playing, bringing a modern indie sensibility to Dick Dale-styled riffs that roil and snap at listeners ears like a lightning-struck ocean wave. Vocals are a rare find on a Khruangbin track; when they are used, they complement the song’s narrative and are even a good deal of fun. On “Maria También,” band members wince in pain as if Speer’s riffs are too hot to touch – and they are.

While Khruangbin’s deference to old sounds lends itself to a fresh departure from tired indie tropes, the album falters on the sixth and seventh cuts, “Shades of Man” and “Evan Finds the Third Room.” The former track is clumsy filler at best, while the latter may be the most terrible CHIC tribute ever to make it to press, offering listeners nothing but anemic phaser-laden guitar and cringe-inducing, borderline satirical ad-libs. 

Though tracks like “Rules” and “August 10” find “the pocket,” the elusive capital G-Groove that bassists and drummers of all calibers spend years refining, the tracks struggle to hook listeners, largely falling to forgettable and lackluster melody. When listened to side by side, “Rules” proves a mediocre version of “Lady and Man.” Meanwhile, neither the reverb soaked “oohs” nor the tasteful lap steel whines can save “August 10” from simply being forgotten. On a 42-minute, 10-track album, four forgettable tracks is a tragedy. As listeners, we don’t want to forget Khruangbin.

Despite its foray into the forgettable and unforgettably mediocre, the trio hits its stride on the album’s slower ballads. On tracks like “Como Te Quiero,” “A Hymn” and “Friday Morning,” the Houston-based songsters trade frenetic surf-rock for gorgeous, atmospheric soundscapes. Embellished with Leslie-speaker processed vocals, “Como Te Quiero” sighs like a late night at a kitchen counter, while “A Hymn” mourns for a world marked by sparse percussion and gently weeping guitar. On the closer, “Friday Morning,” the group channels the Isley Brothers for an intimate, sparkly seven minutes.

Aptly titled “Con Todo El Mundo,” the album comes alive by bringing listeners on a journey across genre, continent and time period. Blending psychedelic rock, heavy surf riffs, soul, gospel and yes, even disco, Khruangbin is everywhere at once – it’s even in your neck muscles, bobbing your head to its delicious grooves. On “Con Todo El Mundo,” the group never loses sensitivity to tasteful rhythm, accessible melody and gorgeous production. At its best, Khruangbin deliver songs that breathe, inviting listeners to breathe with it.

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