[12 August 2003]
PopMatters General Features Editor
Formerly featuring Calexico’s Joey Burns and John Convertino, Friends of Dean Martinez explore similar musical territory on this expansive, sweeping, all-instrumental two-disc set, featuring an array of songs which evoke the Sonoran desert in its various states, be it sun-baked and sizzling (the feedback and distortion drenched “Overload”), or drenched in monsoon rain (the atmospherics and found noises of “Main Theme”), and in the various moods it inspires: a melancholy in the face of majesty (“Indian Summer”, “Through the Whine”), or a near whimsical sense of clock-like perseverance (“Alternate Theme”). Typically deemed cinematic, Friends of Dean Martinez open and close these discs with the sound of spooling film to acknowledge the inescapable comparison.
Though On the Shore certainly resembles soundtrack music, it’s much less Ennio Morricone than it is Pink Floyd. Bill Elm’s reverberating steel guitar, the instrument that stands in where vocals would be, is frequently reminiscent of David Gilmour’s booming, eternally sustained notes, drawing out solos for what seems like forever with the absolute minimum of melody. “Under the Waves”, with its slow-motion acoustic guitar figure and its swelling organ chords, sounds like it could be an outtake from Meddle, and “Omaha” even bears a passing resemblance to the epic outro of “Echoes”. Eminently listenable without being entirely engaging, the album makes for perfect mood music for those trapped on freeways or in offices and longing for unconfined freedom to roam without any urgent or specific destination. On the Shore indulges such lazy fantasies, while remaining forbidding enough to ultimately caution one against them.
Like a musical equivalent of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, the record intimates the sublime grandeur of nature while insisting simultaneously, through long monotonous ambient passages both hypnotic and unsettling, on the utter indifference of it. Spaciousness can feel wide open and inviting, but it can also feel oppressive, obviating any significance one might assign to oneself. Friends of Dean Martinez manage to capture both of these, giving the album a dialectical complexity, as it seems to argue with itself, never quite resolving the mysteries implicit in their panoramic soundscapes.
Like those 1960s albums by such distinctive (and quite distinct) players as Mongo Santamaria, Gabor Szabo, or Sergio Mendes, On the Shore‘s first disc, compiled from two previous EPs, features a few unmistakable pop hits (“Wichita Lineman”, “Tennessee Waltz”) homogenized into the FODM style, hovering somewhere between jazz, novelty, and elevator music. That may sound like an insult, but it’s meant to be a compliment, as the band sounds even more like itself while playing covers than it does in its originals. This proves that they have succeeded in establishing an identity for themselves that transcends even the most recognizable pop hooks, one that demands a listener reckon with it on its own terms.
The more recently recorded second disc is the more challenging one, working with slower tempos and more sinister guitar work. Elm’s slide guitar no longer wails plaintive melodies that might otherwise be sung, but instead creates buzzing, angry, minor-keyed cries, reaching for unpredictable notes that are less yearning and more provoking than on the first disc. “And Love to be the Master of Hate” is especially brooding, built on what sounds like backwards guitar and organ parts that seem to suck themselves into some abhorred vacuum to save nature the trouble. “On the Shore” adapts Tago Mago-era Can, as well as Goblin, to accommodate the banjo and steel guitar, making these instruments seem like seamless extensions of the electronic ones employed in the earlier Krautrock experimentations. The heavy, ominous moods these tracks create begin to overwhelm one, with each crescendo another sand dune crashing down, threatening to suffocate one altogether.
While it is unlikely that many could tolerate 90 unrelieved minutes of this, On the Shore—in small doses—works as a purgative and a restorative: it is impossible to hear any other kind of music in one’s head while FODM is playing, so when one returns to something else, it sounds ineluctably light.