[1 March 2006]
What in the world is more valuable to a music snob (or critic, natch) than instrumental rock? To gaze with pity at the cloud of moths around the tacky fluorescent light of lyrics while you float like a butterfly on currents of cool, pure sound? From Duane Eddy and Dick Dale to Tortoise and Don Cabellero, wordless rock albums are as indispensable to the devoted hipster as fanny packs are to the state fair attendee. Let your friends dissect the latest Killers couplet, or decipher the latest M.I.A. shout-out; the time you save avoiding such frivolity can be spent on more important things, like jogging, or finding a better job. But while the rewards reaped from instrumental rock are many, it’s still an intimidating field with many pitfalls, not the least of which is finding oneself knee-deep in New Age. Luckily, the following two records both strike a balance between music to hang in the background, and music to pay close attention to.
Champaign, Illinois’s Henry Frayne is the primary sound sculptor behind Lanterna, Desert Ocean being that band’s fifth release in 10 years. An NPR-featured artist, Lanterna’s press history is entwined with the word “ambient”, about every third line or so. And lots of descriptions about lonesome interstates and moons over canyons. But while some tracks on Ocean, like the sparse and twinkling “Riverside” absolutely merit those descriptions, much of the album sounds more like late 20th century college rock without words. “Venture”, for example, is a dead ringer for an Out of Time-era R.E.M. b-side, just trade in Frayne’s wordless vocals for Kate Pierson’s. I don’t mean that to be disparaging, as both Desert Ocean and Out of Time share affection for landscape-inspired tones and themes, and both have the chops to convey their pastoral aims to the listener.
It is no surprise that Lanterna is finding success on NPR and in film scores; the songs are perfect segue music, capable of bridging fundraising drive to news segment, climax to denouement, or even city to country on a Sunday drive. Titles like “48th and 8th” and “Cross County” further highlight the album’s themes of travel and transition. The former is a waltz so laid back as to be narcoleptic, but it still all about motion and distance, the journey a single guitar note takes to echo back to the microphone. The song structures on Desert Ocean are conservative for the most part, verse-chorus-verse patterns in traditional time signatures that would comfortably support a human voice. But I suspect the reason Lanterna forgoes lyrics is that its focus is the subtlety of sound, songs like “Luminous” the result of thousands of hours of careful tweaking to get just the right tones and textures into a pop format that will showcase them most efficiently. Desert Ocean sounded frighteningly average at first, but after living with the album for a few weeks many of the songs have become memorable as distinct compositions, not the vague attempts at capturing mood that many instrumentalists play at.
New Salt is a different beast entirely, though it’s the product of artists who are no stranger to conventionally structured popular forms such as folk, rock, and the blues. Karate’s Geoff Farina, Ida’s Dan Littleton, and Tsunami’s Luther Gray began their collaboration by providing live film scoring for silent movies at several European art festivals. Those improvisations laid the groundwork for New Salt, which captures a similar combination of looseness and purpose. Far from the tight, song-based work of Frayne’s Desert Ocean, Salt‘s seven tracks spray out in all directions. Acid-rock and slow-core get thrown into a cauldron of free jazz on the title track, with each player stirring their instrument in at a different pace. Gray’s drums skitter and twitch over Littleton’s slow, understated cycles of drone. Farina’s unique guitar playing gravitates towards both at different times, shaking and spasming in compliment to the nervous percussion, then retreating back to its central melodic theme.
But what about conceptual theme? What is new salt, anyway—the flavored designer sea-salts now available in your local organic food market, or a figure of speech akin to reinvented wheel? Like the titles given to abstract paintings, one guess is as good as another—though it helps to have confidence that the artwork you’re experiencing isn’t just paint at the wall. Anyone can pick up a paintbrush or set of drumsticks and go nuts. Thankfully, Farina, Littleton, and Gray have proven themselves to be not just anyone with voluminous recorded histories to prove it. New Salt possesses not only skill but consistency. There’s a restlessness in the most subdued tracks, like Littleton’s “Harmonia”, that finds release elsewhere, as on the playful “Liquor Store”, the latter featuring one guitarist creating whale song squalls while the other plays noodly jazz. The record exudes a confidence that in turn assures the listener that they’re not being conned, that the improvisation have thought and feeling that run deeper than plain impulse. In a sense, the record runs the Desert Ocean approach in reverse: instead of using traditional structure to get you to appreciate texture and tone, New Salt uses texture and tone to get you to appreciate the absence of structure.