Sharps and Flats: Friends of Dean Martinez

Topics: Music,

I know I’m not making it up when I say that Friends of Dean Martinez are running between civilization and the open road, because the cover of the Tucson, Ariz., band’s new “Retrograde” makes it perfectly clear. On the back and front of the CD there’s the interior of a cherry-red, souped-up, ’50s-era car — close-up on the sexy knobs and switches. But the inside photo is of an endless stretch of back road, nobody in sight. The road begs for the car and vice versa; the car is civilized, the road is not. It’s just a tiny strip of cement holding back the wild.

It’s the wild, wild Southwest that’s the setting for “Retrograde’s” instrumental flights between society and the less-tame stuff. Following the melancholy locomotive of Bill Elm’s steel guitar, the Friends — who changed their name from Friends of Dean Martin before the release of their debut, “Shadow of Your Smile,” after threats of a lawsuit from Dino’s people — travel back and forth from the haunted desert to the roadhouse lounge. This is dirty-boots-on-a-dusty-road music that doesn’t mind stepping inside to cool down, clean up, slip on a bolo tie and treat itself to a sweet tango and a nice, stiff drink.

The first track, “Rattler” — built around a sinister sample of the poison kind — plunks you right down in the middle of cactus country. Elm and guitarist Joey Burns menace with long, vibrato chords, while Van Christian, Tom Larkins and John Convertino lead their drums and percussion (marimba, maracas) through a peppery fandango. “Nile Blues” is in a similar spot, with Elm strumming a howl-at-the-moon guitar that swings low, scratches high and circles the melody like it’s wounded prey. When he gets to the bridge, boy does he feast, tearing into a meaty crescendo while Christian beats his kit within an inch of its life.

“Retrograde” ends with the somber title track, on which Elm twists his guitar into an air horn, wailing wordlessly about the solitude of it all. But in between the dark meditations, there’s sensuous respite. A traditionally Mexican dance tune, “Monte Carlo,” and “False Serpentine,” an airy marimba confection, take you out of the wilderness and into the club. “Fresca” is dance-worthy as well, a slightly swinging homage to Joao Gilberto.

The lighter side of “Retrograde” is what’s earned the Friends a comparison to the astrally tinged tinkling known as ’90s lounge. The analogy isn’t quite right — “Retrograde” hasn’t got irony in its repertoire, something that seems like a prerequisite in the contemporary lounge scene. If the music references ’60s kitsch, it’s a tribute. If nothing else, the Friends are sincere as hell. They’re lounge lizards without the sneer and drifters without the con. Like that cherry red car, “Retrograde” has a sweet little place in civilization, but it’s not trapped by it. As soon as it can, it’s busting out on the open road.

Natasha Stovall is a regular contributor to Salon.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Burger King Japan

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Burger King's black cheeseburger: Made with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, arguably a symbol of meat's destructive effect on the planet. Only available in Japan.

    Elite Daily/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    McDonald's Black Burger: Because the laws of competition say that once Burger King introduces a black cheeseburger, it's only a matter of time before McDonald's follows suit. You still don't have to eat it.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Domino's Specialty Chicken: It's like regular pizza, except instead of a crust, there's fried chicken. The company's marketing officer calls it "one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had” -- brain power put to good use.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Arby's Meat Mountain: The viral off-menu product containing eight different types of meat that, on second read, was probably engineered by Arby's all along. Horrific, regardless.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    KFC'S ZINGER DOUBLE DOWN KING: A sandwich made by adding a burger patty to the infamous chicken-instead-of-buns creation can only be described using all caps. NO BUN ALL MEAT. Only available in South Korea.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Waffle Taco: It took two years for Taco Bell to develop this waffle folded in the shape of a taco, the stand-out star of its new breakfast menu.

    Michele Parente/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburger: Only attendees at the San Diego County Fair were given the opportunity to taste the official version of this donut-hamburger-heart attack combo. The rest of America has reasonable odds of not dropping dead tomorrow.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Quesarito: A burrito wrapped in a quesadilla inside an enigma. Quarantined to one store in Oklahoma City.

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Boston Pizza's Pizza Cake: The people's choice winner of a Canadian pizza chain's contest whose real aim, we'd imagine, is to prove that there's no such thing as "too far." Currently in development.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    7-Eleven's Doritos Loaded: "For something decadent and artificial by design," wrote one impassioned reviewer, "it only tasted of the latter."

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>