'Mordechai' Review: Khruangbin's dreamy album is smooth funk psychedelia served with a dash of surf and soul
Featuring lyrics as a focal point for the first time ever, their song structures are sophisticated and multi-dimensional with musical concepts plucked from different corners of the globe
The strikingly eclectic Houston-based musical trio Khruangbin is back with their third studio album, 'Mordechai', which releases on June 26 via Dead Oceans and Night Time Stories. Forged in 2009, the talented band consists of Laura Lee Ochoa (bass/vocals), Mark Speer (guitar) and Donald Ray 'DJ' Johnson Jr (drums). Often hailed for wearing their international and often esoteric music influences on their sleeves, the band members had previously showcased a rich blend of sparkling surf, psychedelic soul, groovy dub and vintage funk tunes derived from diverse places such as Thailand, Spain, Jamaica, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Known for their Prince Valiant-style fringed wigs as much as their trippy, bass-heavy instrumental music which was hard to pin down, Khruangbin set themselves apart from other American bands with their unmistakably global sound and undeniable aesthetic appeal. Even their name "Khruangbin" comes from a Thai word meaning flying engine or airplane, which as one music critic put it, "is perfect for their music as it often crosses borders and cultures".
Having already made quite an impression on the international music community, the release of their latest offering, 'Mordechai', was hotly anticipated. The album's name is a homage to one of Laura's new-found friends, who had invited the musician for a hike to a distant waterfall along with his family. This was in the summer of 2019, and Laura was feeling particularly lost, having spent over three-and-a-half years touring with Khruangbin.
The band had since returned to their Texas farmhouse studio determined to slow down and enjoy the process of making music together once again. During the long trek to the waterfall, Laura mulled over the concept of enjoying the journey rather than rushing to the destination, something she had not fully grasped during her band's whirlwind rise to fame. As she embraced this dawning clarity, they arrived at the waterfall and Laura's new friend urged her to jump into the sparkling waters. Looking back on the incident as a baptism of liberation, she made the leap of faith as her friend yelled out her new full name, "Laura Lee Ochoa," which she had recently taken as a homage to her grandfather. Emerging out of the waters as a reborn individual, Laura would be forever grateful to her friend, Mordechai, for that crystal-clear epiphany.
Soon after that illuminating experience, Laura would go to pen hundreds of pages of lyrics as she tapped into new-found insights. In a first for a Khruangbin album, these lyrics became the main focal point of their new songs, which up to this point had been largely instrumental. As usual, their songs are far-reaching and kaleidoscopic in nature, equal parts monumental and transcendental. They are a reflection of Khruangbin's maturity and the lessons they have learned so far, imparting their song structures with refreshing intimacy, otherworldly sophistication and musical concepts plucked from different corners of the globe, be it Asia, Africa, America or Europe.
Opener 'First Class' sets the tone for the album with its funky grooves, laidback beats and dreamy chanting. The minimalist lyrics allude to a jet-set lifestyle, complete with champagne on ice and white suits, making for a lush and reverberant moodscape that is accompanied by the refrain "H-Town" (a reference to their hometown Houston) towards the end.
'Time (You and I)' contains more funky disco grooves, bubbling bass and playful percussion, as the wistful lyrics declare a quest for a more fruitful existence — "If we had more time / We could live forever / Just You and I / We could be together / We can play like children play."
'Connaissais de Face' is more oriented towards a psychedelic guitar funk vibe by way of Serge Gainsbourg, artfully sampling what sounds like two lovers from a vintage French film reminiscing about the good old days. Plenty of fond memories and pithy lines are shared by the couple, including some gems, with lyrics such as these: "She knew how to enjoy life... Shouldn't we all?", "I didn't know it at the time... Time changes everything" and "I like to go where I choose to go."
'Father Bird, Mother Bird' is reminiscent of vintage Khruangbin fare as it descends into a meandering, lilting instrumental guitar jam with echoing, clanging percussion and whirring background noises. This is the first song on the album to feature no lyrics, lulling the listener into a gentle reverie with its unspoken story.
'If There Is No Question' is a slow and introspective meditation with subtle hints of church organ thrown in alongside the soulful guitar lines and measured bass. It's as much a haunting exploration of someone's psyche as it is a celebration of Marvin Gaye-inspired musical tropes and metaphysical themes. The splintered lyrics include, "Hearts will get broken / I'll go with you / You're not crazy / You're wild / But you're not crazy / We're all in this world / Promises won't last / If there is no answer."
The Spanish flavors of 'Pelota' are immediately apparent with its flamenco-inspired melody and infectious rhythms that beckon you to clap your hands and dance. The title refers to a ball (from a game predominantly played in Spain), while the celebratory lyrics state, "I’m a soot ball / I was lost in a surreal house / I turned into a demon / Who had a seed / The seed was plucked / Thanks to the help of my family / Now I can be a ball." It's all meant in a strictly metaphorical sense, of course.
'One To Remember' is certainly memorable, leaving a lasting impression with its simmering, panther-like glide and flow. It occupies the same echo-drenched, dream-chant space as the opening track 'First Class' did, albeit with more experimentation happening on the expansive modulation and spacey production this time around.
The sentimental and blissed-out 'Dearest Alfred' was inspired by a collection of letters that Laura's grandfather once wrote to his twin brother. The lyrics seem to have been lifted directly from these discovered missives, containing lines like "Where are you now? / We hardly see or speak anymore / Your letter is the best gift / I am happy when you're here / Tell me about your friends / Write to me soon / Your letter is the best gift / Can you imagine my joy? / I received your wonderful letter."
'So We Won’t Forget' features peppy rhythms, gorgeous harmonies and twinkling guitars, recounting a tale of Ochoa filling her apartment with memories she’s scrawled on paper and letters to prevent them from slipping away into the dark void of impermanence. "Every minute / Every hour / So we won't forget / You don't have to be silent / Say to remind me / So we won't forget."
The album closes with 'Shida', which is another laidback and surreal nomadic romp through dreamfunk territory, with tasteful backbeats thrown in. Another instrumental number filled with hypnotic background croons and a shimmering harp-meets-wind chimes effect, it's a lovely juxtaposition of the band's multi-dimensional sound, evoking both the past and future incarnations of Khruangbin.
While still holding on to their core sound of trippy funk psychedelia laced with lashings of dub, surf and soul, Khruangbin prove that they're steadily evolving into a forward-thinking, mature and polished unit on 'Mordechai'. Thanks to their wide range of far-flung musical influences, the Houston trio effortlessly demonstrate that the world truly is a humming, interconnected beehive with their rapidly expanding oeuvre of kaleidoscopic sound.