“‘A La Sala,’ I used to scream it around my house when I was a little girl, to get everybody in the living room; to get my family together. That’s kind of what recording the new album felt like. Emotionally there was a desire to get back to square-one between the three of us, to where we came from–in sonics and in feeling. Let’s get back there.” - Laura Lee Ochoa
The title makes it clear. A La Sala (“To the Room” in Spanish), the fourth studio album by Khruangbin, is an exercise in returning in order to go further, and do so on your own terms. It extends the air of mystery and sanctity that’s key to how bassist Laura Lee Ochoa, drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson, Jr. and guitarist Mark “Marko” Speer approach music. Yet if 2020’s Mordechai, the last studio album Khruangbin made without collaborators, was a party record whose ensuing post-lockdown tour enhanced the band’s musical reputation far and wide, A La Sala is the measured morning after. It’s a gorgeously airy album made only in the company of the group’s longtime engineer Steve Christensen, with minimal overdubs. It is a porthole onto the bounties powering Khruangbin’s vision, a reimagining and refueling for the long haul ahead. A La Sala scales Khruangbin down to scale up, a creative strategy with the future in mind.
It is also a response to the unique moment Khruangbin finds itself in now: following a decade spent cultivating extraordinary music paths, beginning a year when they'll perform for more people, in more iconic spaces, staging a live show that pushes a creative envelope peculiar to them alone. (Look for the band at major festivals and venues near you.) 2024 feels like both marker and pivot, cementing Khruangbin’s stature as a commercially and critically successful group that continues to be guided by creative possibilities.
Such crossroads are familiar for iconic artists throughout the rock era — your Dylans, Stevies and Bowies, up thru turn-of-the-century Radiohead, all have navigated these straits. On A La Sala, Khruangbin also pulls exploration inward, spurning the din of the crowd’s expectations, mapping a personal direction home. The trio’s collective musical DNA and the years spent constructing it in Houston’s local-meets-global cultural stew ensure the band carries on sounding like no one but itself. A La Sala may in fact be Khruangbin’s purest distillation. A cascade of crisp melodies still emanates from Marko’s reverb-heavy electric, dancing gently around Laura Lee’s minimalist almost-dub bass triangles, while DJ’s drums serve as the tightened-up pocket and unwavering dance-floor on which all this movement takes place.
Where prior album-by-album growth seemed to point the narratives towards music’s polyglot edges, such inquiries now sound like known intimacies. What once seemed like sonic invocations — spaghetti-western film scores, found-sounds, dancing moments more living room than rooftop disco — are ingrained characteristics. This is who they are! And there’s a freshness to the instrumental interactivity on A La Sala that’s less concerned with getting further out than going deeper in. That depth is not about therapeutic self-reflection, but a profound desire to celebrate the world’s external wonders.
A La Sala invites intimate intercontinental partying. The first single is, after all, called “A Love International.” “Pon Pón” holds the band’s table at the West African discotheque; yet the joy now moves to the corner left of the dancefloor, where the back-and-forth between Laura Lee’s bass, DJ’s hi-hat, and Marko’s tuneful rhythm scratches, is a marvel of knowing head-nods. There’s “Hold Me Up (Thank You),” a familial sweetness in its spare lyrics, feeding off the rhythm section’s sturdy funk shuffle, and a chorus on which Marko’s guitar evokes both sides of the Atlantic in confident unshowy rhythms. They’re on “Todavía Viva” too, next to DJ’s noir-soul rim-shots, synth strings and a pregnant pause that is Laura Lee’s favorite moment on the album, the mood kin to the band’s glorious live interpretations of G-funk fantasias. And the rocked-up miniature, “Juegos y Nubes,” demonstrates Khruangbin’s Houston-born superpower to culture-mix, a dancing mood less concerned with worldly glamor than communal grooving.
“I read something long ago, attributed to Miles Davis. He said, ‘When they play fast, you play slow. When they play slow, you play fast.’ And it's definitely how I've approached looking at music: Don't follow the trends. And if the trend is this, then do something else.” - Marko
From the get-go, Khruangbin’s journey has been emphatically its own: a sound and visual representation with few precedents, ignoring pop expectations, relying only on internal inspirations, and a multitude of visions. It’s a mindset of penetrating the self, connecting to the surrounding world, modeling your own life experiences. This ethos is threaded throughout A La Sala, audible in the album’s form and function. (It’s even visible in the vinyl version’s physical package, which will be released as a set of seven distinctive covers and color-sets — more on which in a sec.)
The building blocks for the album’s 12 songs were jigsaw pieces found in Khruangbin’s creative past. Having stockpiled ideas originally set down as off-the-cuff recordings (voice-memos made at sound-checks, on long voyages, as absentminded epiphanies), they began fitting those pieces together in the studio. Which parts were apt? Which could be massaged and stretched out? Which inspired new sections or rhythms or musical interactions? Once more, Khruangbin’s familial DNA kicked in. Layer-by-layer, the intimate work, rework and re-rework bore new fruit. They also brought back a strategy once foundational to their records: seeding an album with field recordings.
Some results fold directly into A La Sala’s down-home feel. “Three From Two” and “May Ninth” are wistful mid-tempo numbers, with guitar melodies that reside somewhere between Bakersfield and by-the-riverside, cues that, for all its borderless inclusivity, another core Khruangbin value is being steeped in American roots. And in the landscape that music comes from. Like all albums prior to Mordechai, Marko made sure environmental sounds — natural and man-made — appeared as textures. (At times philosophically: the group recorded while cricket chirps played in their headphones, presumably for terroir.) It’s how A La Sala achieves such interconnected set-and-setting-ness.
Other results are more metaphorical, especially in Khruangbin’s flirtation with ambient spaces. The dramatically beatless “Farolim de Felgueiras” and “Caja de la Sala” both feature only Marko’s unmistakable guitar dueting with Laura Lee’s Moog, lightly layered with sounds of shoes on stone steps, and cicadas in an open field. The closing “Les Petits Gris” more fully reduces and fleshes out the ambiance, with a piano and a simple single-note bass pattern, Marko’s plaintive spare guitar echoing the melody of a ballerina-turning music box. It feels an apt way of ending — as a passing of this particular moment, preparation for the next one, soon-come.
Even the seven different covers that adorn A La Sala’s various vinyl editions offer a throughline from the music into Khruangbin’s current frame. Designed by the band using Marko’s multitude of travelog photos, they are windows from the band’s living room onto a set of daydreams, scenes of impossible skies, external glances illuminating what is going on inside. These are also directly related to David Black’s images of DJ, Laura Lee and Marko which accompany A La Sala, and to Khruangbin’s live staging reinvention. It’s all about looking out and looking back, in order to better look ahead.
“All the little moments you capture. You don't see how impactful they are until you hear what eventually comes of them. A lot of those scraps end up being the thing — and you don't realize it until it's ‘The Thing.’” - DJ
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