Guitarist Henry Frayne, the primary force behind Lanterna, has been exploring wide open spaces with his six string for years now, which adds up to 5 full-lengths’ worth of ambient guitar textures. Desert Ocean, the group’s latest, and first record for the Jemez Mountain label, continues along that same expansive sonic highway. The songs on this disc are perfectly suited for listening to in your car, preferably while driving down a long stretch of highway right at the edge of the twilight hour.
Unfortunately, should you listen to the disc without the benefit of scenic vistas passing by outside your window, serving as a visual backdrop to Frayne’s guitar tones, you might start to notice a few of the disc’s flaws.
As with previous Lanterna albums such as Elm Street, Desert Ocean is essentially instrumental; the only time vocals are heard, such as on “Venture,” they’re wordless and just serve as basically one more instrument. However, given the very straightforward structure of many of the songs — despite lacking lyrics, the songs still very much follow a verse/chorus/verse structure — the vocal-less songs often feel like they’re missing something, like Frayne forgot to mix in the vocal track. Or like he forgot to invite the guest vocalist down to the studio (methinks Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek would sound quite at home on some of these tracks, such as “Surf” or “Cross Country”).
Furthermore, given that many of the tracks stretch past the 5‑minute mark, they soon become rather repetitious. Such is the case with the aforementioned “Venture,” which runs over 8 minutes in length even though the song basically stopped progressing somewhere around the 5 minute mark.
Thankfully, all of the disc’s songs are blessed with Frayne’s lush guitar-playing. But even here the disc’s straightforward structure proves something of a hindrance. Make no mistake, drummer Eric Gebow is a solid percussionist, and his strong drumming definitely adds to the album’s driving sound. However, I sometimes find myself wishing that there was a little less of him on the disc.
This is so that Frayne can be freed from any sense of structure and be allowed to meander and explore the tones and atmospherics he generates. But with Gebow’s drumming constantly pushing the songs forward, there’s little time left for a slower pace. As a result, the times where the disc does find Frayne going off on his own can seem a little cursory, even though the songs themselves might be quite lovely (as is the case with “Riverside”).
But there are many times where Desert Ocean’s more song-oriented nature works out just fine, where Frayne’s atmospherics and Gebow’s strong drumming mesh quite nicely. The disc’s opener, “Luminous,” is a very strong track that immediately sets the album’s traveling tone. Frayne’s playing is reminiscent of the textures and shimmering notes that The Edge recorded on The Joshua Tree (and one could be forgiven for half-expecting to hear Bono’s soaring voice during the song’s later moments).
“48th & 8th” is one of the disc’s more relaxed moments, with Frayne’s strummed guitar lazily drawing surf-like, Starflyer 59-esque figures on top Gebow’s brushed drums. The song has a lovely, almost romantic tone to it, steeped in memory and nostalgia.
Of course, all complaints about the disc’s structure will probably fade should you actually listen to Desert Ocean in your car, especially if you’re driving down the interstate. There, the driving, structured nature of the album can work as it joins in with the cycles of the engine, the rumble of the tires on cracked pavement, the blurred sounds of signs and mile markers streaming past the window, the sound of the wind rushing past.
I’m a firm believer that context and environment shapes music, or at least our perceptions of it, and I think that’s doubly so with Desert Ocean, an album that sounds as if it was composed only for long drives in the horizon’s general direction.