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.