I’ve never been to the desert. The American desert exists in my imagination only, from art. I think of cowboy songs, or Jonathan Richman’s song: “Why does the desert make my heart go thrum? / Well, the Martians land there / And they’re not dumb.” Colorful, but it neither conveys how unusual, even unsettling, a place the desert can be. Not like the spellbinding music of the California-based trio Maquiladora. Across their five albums they depict the desert as a strange place and embody that strangeness through the music itself.
The double-disc set St. Cecila’s Drowning reissues the second and third of those albums, 2000’s White Sands and 2002’s Ritual of Hearts, with bonus tracks. White Sands opens with harmonica, dust in the air, and then singing, strained in a starry-eyed mystical way and weary in a been-wandering-in-the-desert way. The instruments head off-key and the singing meanders, but a solid song still emerges. “Prostitute Song” it is called, and even if you can’t follow the lyrics, they convey a different desert than the conventional image. A reference to the smell of piss jumps out. “Julian”, the next song, is sung with a Tom Waits-like harshness. Again little is crystal-clear, but there is a very specific sense of journey: “Heading forward / Trading questions / A thousand nights in one”. The music is pretty: light, almost jazzy, and dreamlike. But it’s also sad, and the song reveals itself to be a requiem, or at least a song of loss, crying for the title figure.
Maybe these are all songs of journey and loss. Longing, searching, and defeatism trade off. Spooky organs accompany rustic guitar and lush but minor touches of xylophone and similar instruments. Campfire songs of yearning sit beside nightmare songs, soaked in visions of devils and ghosts. When an electric guitar plays, it’s in service of the devilish side. The songs tell of broken people. “Your ankle is broken / And so are you” is one memorable passage. There’s the historic sense of wilderness, of the desert as an anything-goes place (“He was my cousin / And I shot him down”), but also a psychedelic side. Listening, I think of dreamers on quests or drug-fueled desert trips, of the desert as a portal to somewhere else, but also of gritty desert towns and their inhabitants.
Throughout White Sands, Maquiladora balance these space-bound and earthbound sensibilities. “Bueno Mis Amigos” begins with a Pink Floyd-ish feeling of drifting in space, but as the song proceeds it feels more tied to a specific place on earth. It’s still open and searching, but with tabla, wailing, and, eventually, extended silence.
Ritual of Hearts is a less wild, but no less mysterious album. This is intimate, inside music, not as redolent of the expansive outdoors. The vocals are more hushed, less grizzly-bear styled. The mood is calmer, romantic even, but sadly so. Ritual of Hearts seems like a concept album of love songs, but are these really love songs? There is a song titled “I’m In Love”, but also one called “Dream of Snakes”. The title “A Vow” later becomes “Avow”. It’s an album about love, then, but always sullen and surreal, and love seems no prize.
It’s a gentle album that’s still exploratory. The melodies and textures generated by the guitars are gorgeous, but the guitars are also always on the hunt for something. “I’m in Love” contains a glorious sense of discovery. It’s the one truly “up” moment of the album in feeling. That’s because it represents a temporary release of the fear and foreboding that hovers everywhere else. “I used to cry nearly all of the time”, the song declares, and the dominant tone of the album makes that no surprise. With this finding of love, though, the fear doesn’t exactly decrease. The album is haunted to the end.
The sound of Ritual of Hearts is consistent, but within that one vision the musicians have ample room to play. The album is filled with open spaces for musical or lyrical questions and dreams/nightmares to emerge. Somehow this makes it more exciting than the more eclectic White Sands. There’s depth to Ritual of Hearts within its construction. The album ends in drift, an eternal “Static Hum” that declares the slipperiness of love, life, and the sand beneath our feet.