Anyone who has visited White Sands can’t help marveling at the sparse, still beauty of the place. On Maquiladora’s album named after that area of New Mexico it seems that, at some level, they have sought to render the sensorial impact and the psychic resonance of the geography of White Sands within a purely aural medium. With a view to capturing the feel of that landscape’s timeless expanse they opt, logically enough, for spare and stark musical textures.
But such a precise geographical grounding in the Southwest tells only part of the story of White Sands. The loose, wandering textures of Maquiladora’s songs are also littered with idiosyncratic ingredients that suggest an attempt to provide a musical translation of a broader affective landscape—a pastiche geography of America(na) that stretches from the Southwest to the Appalachians, and beyond. In terms of its execution and its effect, much of White Sands suggests the kind of aesthetic central to art naif. Traditional song form, as well as polished performance and production, is for the most part abandoned or resisted here. In place of these, Maquiladora display a preference for loose-knit, unmelodic—at times dissonant—structures, fashioned with unorthodox, sometimes “found” instrumentation (e.g. golf ball, frying pan, and saw) and subjected to minimal technological finessing.
Ironically, however, the better tracks on White Sands are those that are the least experimental, tracks that rely on more traditional elements such as harmony, fluidity, linear progression and coherence. Two of the standouts in this regard are “So Far Away” and “Mr. Grey.” The ebbs and flows of the downbeat “So Far Away,” with its vaguely menacing, whispered vocals, are broken up momentarily by controlled guitar intensity, while the similarly understated “Mr. Grey” drifts along adorned with haunting flute and perfectly integrated female backing vocals.
The beautifully rendered, sorrowful ambience of “Bueno Mis Amigos” is the most compelling interlude on White Sands. Crucial to the success of this extended track is the interplay of three simple elements that come together to near sublime effect: the grounded melancholy of the lead vocal melody, the ethereal, Eastern flavored female vocal flourishes and the subtle insistence of the tabla.
Nevertheless, White Sands is a considerably difficult album for the listener to find his/her way into and it takes a while to recognize such exceptional cuts. This is due mainly to the fact that, rather than draw you in, the more complex, almost abstruse material simply throws up obstacles in the way of the listening experience.
Structural fragmentation, stasis as opposed to development, odd vocal stylings, deliberately out-of-whack performance, off-key melodies and dragging off-the-beat rhythms all feature prominently in what other reviewers have lauded as Maquiladora’s “deconstruction” (presumably meant in the popular sense of the word) and “reconstruction” of musical formulae.
While Maquiladora are certainly adept in their utilization of a variety of strategies to break down the conventional song format, they don’t then do anything interesting with the components that they’ve prised apart and dismantled. Rather, the song’s remains are simply left rusting like auto parts and assorted junk in some high-desert front-yard of their imagined America.
Consequently, much of Maquiladora’s material is utterly lacking in pleasure. I’m not referring here to a simple model of enjoyment but, rather, to pleasure as the involvement and participation of the viewer or listener with a text. Historically, within the broad realm of pop and rock, numerous bands have crafted difficult and challenging music that has nonetheless engaged listeners. Maquiladora is not one of those bands.
From the very first track, Maquiladora seem bent on driving the listener away as “Prostitute Song” limps along in 3/4 time, its warped fairground feel made all the more nightmarish by a nails-on-the-chalkboard falsetto. If this parody of Neil Young doesn’t do the job, then subsequent tracks like “Julian,” “Little Miss RC,” and “Itchy” surely will. The purposeful undermining of conventional musicality seems to be their only end and these tracks collapse in on themselves under the self-important weight of their meandering, scattered structures.
The listener’s patience is stretched to the limit on the interminable (and it’s only 4 minutes long) “Termez 1936.” This track finds Maquiladora’s sound at its most heady and experimental, hopelessly mired in mumbling and noodling.
The element that really brings the proceedings down on the side of empty pretense, however, is the highly mannered, husky and cracking Tom Waits imitation that runs throughout several of the tracks, most notably “Julian.” While Waits’s musical vision has sufficient strength and depth to support such a vocal performance, Maquiladora’s, unfortunately, does not. Moreover, while Waits’s music communicates the notion that he is, perhaps, a genuinely eccentric individual, much of White Sands smacks of a band trying just a little too hard to be weird.
This is a hugely uneven CD. There are moments of unquestionable beauty and of near genius on White Sands, but they’re all but lost amid a general tendency toward studied eccentricity, contrived idiosyncrasy and crypto-artistic incoherence. Listening to the more problematic tracks on White Sands, one gets the sense that, while Maquiladora have a wealth of ideas, they’re not entirely sure of how to render them in this medium. The kind of cerebral experimentation that makes up much of this album might be well-suited to the context of a film score but the band hasn’t fully realized how to translate it to song format.