It takes guts to ply a gentle instrumental sound and try to get it filed under “rock music.” Without words, the songs stray a little too close for comfort toward the border of that nasty two-word term: new age. The love of middle-aged Earth Mothers. The accompaniment to elevator rides into the bowels of hell. The bane of anyone with even the tiniest musical bone in their body.
Henry Frayne, who records as Lanterna, thankfully manages to just avoid such Aquarian schlock on his fifth album, Desert Ocean. Which is progress, since he’s fallen into that trap before. Elm Street (2001) had plenty of merits, but it was ruined by Frayne’s decision to include the sounds of wolves howling in a song titled — wait for it — “Wolves,” and, on “Dog Days,” not the sound of barking pups but the chirping of summer insects.
So it’s with very minor missteps that this type of music can plummet into a crevasse of cheeze. For a second, it seems that Desert Ocean might. Opener “Luminous” sounds like a Muzak version of Pink Floyd’s “Run.” Then you look down the track list and see the fourth song is titled “Fog,” and you’re just sure wind effects are going to show up in full gale.
But no. “Fog” turns out to be a very Kinskian, almost glitch-pop darker-hued number. These types alternate on Desert Ocean with more upbeat, sunny, rollicking tunes, such as “Summer Break” and “Surf.” Think Mark Kozelek‘s or Damien Jurado‘s more countrified numbers minus the vocals, or the work of fellow instrumentalists Japancakes. On these, Frayne shows off his talented guitar work and love for the transcendent sound of a high-hat cymbal rush. Back on the more ominous end, “Riverside” blips and bleeps again, the sound of two guitars singing call and response across a canyon. It reminds you why reviewers, including this one, have a hard time writing about Lanterna without bringing up Eno. And closer “Messina” is Western desert-baked, with long stretches of echoing guitar.
Desert Ocean is the type of genre-busting album sure to give pigeonholing record store clerks with OCD headaches. So it’s wonderful that Lanterna’s lush, beautiful music is the perfect pill for that malady.