Written by: Dave Cantrell
Looping, loping, pausing for a suspended second, driving on, the world with all that lush and unexpected, the mundane sublime transfixing and frozen, the world in all its complex myriads pouring through the windshield like manna from a heaven most either miss – buried as they are in a shroud of their own thoughts and concerns – or misread as a mere reality concocted out of the daily shrug of experience rather than an extraordinary burst of everydayness they’ll never see nor feel again, an epiphany unfolding as often as they’d like to witness it. At a guess this is the type of experiential territory Champaign Illinois guitarist – and Lantera’s primary driver – Henry Frayne continues in his efforts at mapping here on Hidden Drives (released June 4th on Badman Recording Co.), just as he’s done over multiple albums for the past thirty years. Instrumental throughout as has been nearly all of Lanterna’s material, this is music that, via innovative if unforced turns and some purposeful detours, gets out of its own way.
Over the course of those previous three decades Frayne, like any quietly obsessed artist, has accumulated an always growing store of ideas captured, in his case, in the form of both notebooks and cassettes. Shards and snippets at varying levels of fruition, one imagines them, as the calendar pages kept slipping past, whispering in his inner ears like an increasingly noisy brood of importunate orphans. A few years ago it became clear it was time to bring some of them into full life and from that process, with the assistance of long time confreres Mike Brosco producing, engineering and adding guitar and drummer extraordinaire Eric Gebow (Blue Man Group and others), Hidden Drives would be born.
Setting off, song title-wise, with a touch of continental mystique, “Aix” (French for ‘air’ to all you fellow monolinguals) is nevertheless suitably translucent, possessed of a meditative immediacy made of shimmery synth and sustained, spider web strands of guitar treatment that cast across the track with what feels an unbreakable delicacy. “Hidden Drives” then arrives and, if you’ll pardon the metaphor, kicks things into a higher livelier gear, drums and bass now in the picture, the hook hooking with sparkle and irresistibility, the thing tightly – a bit capriciously it might even be said – galloping into the headphones with a scamper and a smile. “Cupola,” next, pinging and gently effervescent, crystalline even, could reasonably be heard as an attempt at gene-splicing those first two cuts into a blended whole and succeeding with surgical finesse. It’s a mastery of effect and execution that’s both subtle and not-so, the artfulness on display from Frayne and his cohorts unfurling in a way that presents in a way that’s as subconscious as it is intentional, which isn’t trickery, of course, but genius.
For more evidence, well, just let the thing play on. “Chagrin Boulevard,” harmonics glistening behind a vernal bank of acoustics, rings with a clarity to suggest Richard Thompson just happened into the studio with the secret to eternal life taped to the back of his Fender while the precisely barreling “Aqueduct” flows out into its various channels with what we’re going to call unbridled restraint, “Maine 262” (derived from ‘Song idea 262’ in that archive of possibles) wanders in an enchanted idyll through a barely-mapped, rarely-traveled musical backroad and the concisely named “Nice” floats through a pool of reflection as if it’s the active sound of solitude echoing against itself in conversation. Through ten tracks on the ‘album proper’ and five repeat tracks Frayne handed to Bosco to remix with the sole instruction to “have some fun,” Hidden Drives, like some kind of intuitive tour guide, leaves not just a lot but, really, everything to your imagination, which is exactly the gift an album of this sort is meant to bestow.
Completing the deal, the album, in its CD format anyway, comes inside a handsomely simpatico 6-panel digipak featuring sepia-toned black-and-white photography from frequent Lanterna collaborator Kevin Salemme. While that cover with its train top stowaway perspective is arresting in itself, it’s the decidedly less kinetic back cover shot that caught my attention. An eastward-facing landscape, all distance and haze and mostly treeless, there in the foreground, just beyond the coming shadows, rests a cairn. Judging from its size as seen some thirty yards out it seems larger than most (which are often ankle-high and used as trail directional aids), suggesting it might very well be a piece of artwork, a totem or tribute, structurally primitive at a glance maybe but actually quite intricate, precise, constructed with obvious care and devotion. To these eyes the parallels this at-first-glance unremarkable picture, with its ‘wait, what was that?’ object as its visual anchor, draws to the music sitting on a disc just behind it are unmistakable, the very point of its selection. But that’s just one person’s interpretation (your mileage, as they say, may vary). There could be countless others, equally valid, equally reflective of the record’s tone which, too, may very well be the point. In any case, yeah, you get the picture [and you can get Hidden Drives here]