I am speaking to you from the recent past, in the waning hours of the Holiday Shopping season. December depression is one of the cruelest by-products of the modern age. What once was a celebration of joy and peace has become an onslaught of small, mundane tortures: interminable waits in stores where customers and employees alike have long past dropped their facades of good cheer; dull company parties attended out of obligation; the impossibly dark nights accompanied by freezing cold temperatures. To stay sane, everybody finds some way to escape, and Friends of Dean Martinez’s latest album, Lost Horizon, has helped to tear me away from the madness and bring me someplace a bit warmer and, most importantly, a place that feels completely isolated from any traces of modern civilization.
For those who don’t know, Friends of Dean Martinez began life in the short-lived loungecore scene of the ‘90s, even though their sparse, western style was miles away from the kitschy cocktail jazz of that particularly genre. The original band split, with one half of the band eventually founding the inexplicable critics’ darling, Calexico. They are now a trio, a guitarist, a steel guitarist, and a drummer, although they are capable of the entire range of a small orchestra. Their music is evocative to the extreme, conjuring up images of strangely colorful deserts and foreboding barren plains. There is such a definitive sense of geography in their music that it is impossible to describe without bringing up landscapes in some manner or another. Even the title, Lost Horizon, sets up a particular image. Personally, I envision the wide open spaces of John Ford’s classic westerns: almost shockingly vital deserts and dry mountains set against the indifference of a pure blue sky.
Lost Horizon boldly begins with its longest and perhaps most difficult track, “Landfall”, a hypnotic, country take on space rock that emerges from droning ambience into a chaotic free for all. The tracklisting afterwards seems to suggest that Lost Horizon is telling some sort of story, with the second track being “Dawn” and the second-to-the-last track being “Dusk”. It’s something of a journey album, perhaps, and the short album does seem to be going somewhere, although the progress is wholly taking place within the listener’s own subconscious, just not quite explicitly. Not even Friends of Dean Martinez can create an instrumental rock opera, but there seems to be one going on in-between these tracks.
Not all of Lost Horizon is sunsets and ambience, there are several charging rockers sprinkled between moments of gorgeous escapism such as the bubbly march “Somewhere Over the Waves”, or the shimmering (and perfectly titled) “All in the Golden Afternoon”. “Two Hundred Miles” is a percussive stomper that ends with about a half-minute’s worth of skronky solo guitar riffing. “Heart of Darkness”, perhaps the best individual track on the album, is a rip-roaring electric romp that plays like an inadvertent homage to the late Link Wray. “Heart of Darkness” is “Rumble” taken out of the streets, a sneering, menacing song that threatens to overturn Lost Horizon‘s uneasy beauty.
If there are any charges that can be spoken against Lost Horizon, it’s that the album feels less like a destination and more like an enjoyable side trip. While the album is too well put together to be a throwaway, it plays more like a pleasurable EP than a concise album, its breezy charms are meant to be experienced in the immediate listening experience rather than in the hindsight of memory. Maybe it is with fitting irony that Friends of Dean Martinez have named the album’s final track “Departure”, as you leave the record after its final seconds. Of course, this meant little to me at the time when I slipped on the headphones in order to drown out everything that was giving me stress these last few weeks, I wonder if the album will have the same appeal to me when the holiday angst has finally passed.