Doubling Back: Khruangbin, “The Universe Smiles Upon You”
In the first edition of our new column, we take a closer look at the Houston Thai-funk group’s debut LP.
In case you hadn’t noticed, these are culturally rich times. There’s more interesting work being made right now by musicians, filmmakers, writers, and designers than any one website—much less person—can possibly process, and that means that every now and then, we’re so excited about one excellent record or movie or book that we miss another as it passes us by.
In our new series, Doubling Back, we bring you the things we should spend more time talking about: records that have insinuated themselves into our lives, TV series whose themes continue to haunt us, moments on the gridiron or diamond or ice that have proven themselves to be indelible. Consider it a reminder of the abundance that brims to the edges of the calendar.
Despite being the fourth-largest city in the country, Houston isn’t really known for its music scene. Sure, Space City hip-hop, which found its germ in Geto Boys and flowered under the guidance of UGK, has emerged as a fully realized aesthetic that drowns everything coming out of Atlanta in a river of sizzurp. And while the city gave birth to composer William Basinski, you have to go all the way back to Red Krayola, the long-running experimental rockers who formed in Houston in the mid-1960s, to find a noteworthy guitar group making its name on the bayou.
So it’s genuinely remarkable that Khruangbin call Houston home, and that they’re proud to do so. The trio—bassist Laura Lee, guitarist Mark Speer, and drummer Donald Johnson—met in church and have over the course of a series of EPs and singles perfected a seamless blend of Thai funk with the kind of wide-open Texas blues that recalls the flood plains southeast of Houston and the hill country to the west more than it does the city’s sprawl.
Their debut album, last November’s The Universe Smiles Upon You, was recorded in a barn in the small town of Burton, an hour and half’s drive from the city among the hills that separate Houston from Austin. “It’s out in the middle of the country,” the band told Impose of the recording space, “far away from any noise, city lights, and modern distractions.” On the drive out, the trio would listen to tapes culled from Monrakplengthai, a blog dedicated not only to making Thai funk available outside of Thailand, but to delivering the context from which the music itself sprung.
Which might be why The Universe Smiles Upon You has such a palpable sense of place. Even without the origin story, it’s hard to listen to the sticky flecks of Speer’s guitar as they decorate a space bounded by Lee’s unhurried playing and Johnson’s subtle pressure from the pocket and not feel yourself in an open field; that they even recorded this album indoors seems a little hard to believe.
More than anything, The Universe Smiles Upon You owes its hypnotic, tranquil power to Lee. Under the rhythmic control of her bass, the album’s ten tracks are patient in their presentation. Lee’s lines are playful—this is technically funk music, after all—but they unfold with a soft and almost automatic confidence, as if they’d be out there pulsing under the stars like this whether you were around to witness them or not.
Speer’s playing is a little more slanted, a little more faded, than straight Thai funk—see him nod toward John Frusciante in “August Twelve”—which gives The Universe its distinctly local flavor. As the trio wind up the final moments of “Dern Kala” in unison, he suddenly breaks from pack, throwing in a flutter of bluesy chords ripped from the SRV playbook. It’s a deft move, and that he manages to shift the entire tone of the song in the space of a couple of seconds without dramatically altering its composition feels like a minor miracle.
Its sense of place notwithstanding, The Universe Smiles Upon You transcends geography. It doesn’t necessarily close the distance between Texas and Thailand—ain’t nothing making a twenty-two-hour flight any shorter—but it does serve as a reminder that what is overtly foreign isn’t necessarily so, that the same bump at the center of Bangkok throbs in the Houston heat, too. FL