A little over a month ago, Khruangbin marked the impending release of Mordechai by relaunching their official playlist generator. On a website called AirKhruang, fans can specify a duration and choose from a wide range of activities, then receive a custom-generated mix via Spotify or Apple Music to enhance the vibe of whatever they find themselves doing. The song selections reflect the laid-back cosmopolitanism that has turned this largely instrumental Houston trio into theater-filling stars, with fans including both JAY-Z and your Phish-loving cousin. Generate a playlist for reading and you might be served French jazz fusion and Thai electro; choose “beach hang” instead and you might get Somalian disco and Sierra Leonean maringa. Khruangbin’s eclecticism clearly stems from real devotion to music from outside the Western pop-rock canon, and their willingness to direct listeners toward their influences shows an admirable lack of pretense about where it all comes from. But Mordechai rarely accomplishes anything these playlists don’t do better: rendering vibrant sounds from all over the world as impeccably stylish mood music.
Mordechai, Khruangbin’s third proper album, is the first to prominently feature vocals, with all three members contributing. The introduction of singing suggests a new interest in songcraft, a welcome development for a band whose past records can feel like evocative but unpopulated landscapes, heavy on languid atmosphere and light on compositional substance. And Mordechai’s most memorable tracks are the ones with the most singing, like the poolside disco of “Time (You and I),” and the highlife-inspired pop of “So We Won’t Forget.” The best is “Pelota,” whose sun-baked guitar licks and surrealistic Spanish lyrics don’t point so clearly to any particular genre reference, offering a lively possibility for what Khruangbin might sound like when they’re not trying to be anyone but themselves.
But Mordechai doesn’t quite commit to delivering fleshed-out songs, or to synthesizing Khruangbin’s influences into something new. It’s too busy to settle fully into your subconscious like the intercontinental ambience of Khruangbin’s 2018 breakout Con Todo El Mundo, but not substantial enough to satisfy more active listening. On “One to Remember,” guitarist Mark Speer plays meandering jazz leads above a dubby one-drop rhythm from Ochoa and drummer DJ Johnson, an intriguing combination that might rise above its Pat Metheny Meets Rockers Uptown pastiche if Speer didn’t sound so tentative about whether he’s taking a solo or hanging in the background. The vocals consist of a few chanted words, appearing as occasional reverb-drenched accents. It’s a clear nod to the way dub producers reduce melodic lines to ghostly echoes, but without its careful attention to negative space or its suggestion of depth beneath the surface.
Opener “First Class” channels the shimmering-asphalt aura of Roy Ayers’ immortal 1976 jazz-funk track “Everybody Loves the Sunshine,” a platonic ideal for the sort of music Khruangbin are making here: quietly swaggering, more groove than song, belonging to no particular genre but evoking several, conjuring a singular mood from a few simple elements arranged in just the right way. Khruangbin’s failure to catch the elusive magic of the original may be an issue of historical fetishism. Ayers wasn’t studiously recreating the feeling of a decades-old cratedigger gem. He was just playing what he wanted to play.
In a recent New York Times profile, Khruangbin’s label head compared the experience of hearing them for the first time to coming across a mindblowing rare record: “I couldn’t place it—was it a lost psych-funk classic from a far-off land?” You get the sense that Khruangbin like it this way. They are almost as much like DJs as they are a band, as driven to curate as they are to create. Like their previous albums, Mordechai is distant and murky in its production, heavy with nostalgia for a nonspecific time and locale. It sounds as if it’s already been plucked from a dollar bin, fawned over by an exclusive cult of collectors, uploaded to YouTube, and eventually reissued, before it was ever released in the first place.
It is difficult to imagine Khruangbin existing before the internet, at a time when digging for lost classics might have meant pawing through records in crates around the world. Their music is borne from the abundance of streaming, and also borne toward it, its tastefully unobtrusive good vibes purpose-built for playlist placements and Netflix syncs. But Khruangbin also belong to several older and woolier traditions. Their semifrequent guitar solos and emphasis on instrumental interplay make them something like a jam band, which may help explain their runaway success, granting them access to a uniquely loyal base of concertgoers. And their repurposing of Caribbean, African, and Asian sounds as lush easy listening has antecedents as varied as Thievery Corporation and Les Baxter—though, to be fair, they engage with their source material much more seriously and transparently than the exotica artists of the ’50s and ’60s.
A few decades later, those exotica records took on their own status as kitschy collector’s items, and perhaps Mordechai will fare similarly. Down the road, it might look less like a collection of music from across global history and more like a flawed but fascinating reflection of our relationship to that music at this particular moment in time. Nearly everything is available, and everyone is a connoisseur, a state of affairs that can be both enlivening and depressing. There’s nothing like the excitement of finding a great old record you’ve never heard before on YouTube or Spotify, and nothing like the promise of another on the horizon to keep you from spending much time with the one you just found. Mordechai is a symptom of this condition as well as a kind of antidote: it gives you everything at once, without asking for much at all in return. All you have to do is chill.
Buy: Rough Trade
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Correction: *A previous version of this review misstated the origin date of the playlist. The language has been adjusted to reflect that he playlist existed before the launch of the album. The review also stated that bassist Laura Lee Ochoa mostly handled lead vocals. It has been updated to say that the entire band sings on the album, which better reflects the nature of the vocals. *