By Dennis Cook
Some marble takes time to carve. 10 years after their ’95 debut, The Shadow of Your Smile, the Friends have increasingly tucked into darkness, now far more shadow than smile, revealing a most appealing form in the process. This live set, originally released four years ago on Germany’s Glitterhouse label, gives credence to the idea of Dean Martinez being a key player in the instrumental rock game.
Less well known than Tortoise - the de facto yardstick for all things non-vocal in rock - the Friends, who’ve been around the same amount of time, craft an equally distinctive atmosphere but one that reaches back to standards like Gershwin’s “Summertime” (saturated in befuzzed melancholy here) or the “Tennessee Waltz” (which keeps the familiar fresh with flying colors). They avoid the wholly alien quality for which so many instrumental acts shoot by letting their roots show while not being terribly tied to them.
The trio is comprised of Bill Elm (steel guitar), Dave Lachance (drums), and Mike Semple (guitar). The vibe on Live At Club 2, originally recorded in Munich for a radio broadcast in 2001, is Les Paul sipping absinthe and sharing old war stories with Angelo Badalamenti (Twin Peaks). Immersive to be sure, but it can get a bit moody after prolonged exposure. One has to be into texture and romance to really vibrate on their frequency.
A very winning bonus disc, Live At Magnet – Berlin, taken from a March 2004 show, finds them heaping on more distortion, more splashy organ tones, more of a lot of things. Parts aren’t far off from fringe favorites Dead Meadow or the Charalambides. Another gloss might be Dick Dale kidnapped by Sonic Youth. There’s no cuddling to this gig. This is the soundtrack for hard, passionate lovin’, or maybe the perfect disconsolate companion to contemplate Nietzsche’s notion of man as a rope stretched across the abyss. Believe me, it’s way more fun than it sounds!
One can’t help focusing on Elm’s steel work. He’s an innovator on his instrument in the same way as Red Rhodes (Michael Nesmith), Nashville great Buddy Emmons, and cult fave Cal Hand. He coaxes human vocalizations and animal murmuring from his strings in the same way visionary bassist Reed Mathis (Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey) does. It’s quite something. And paired with Semple’s surfy rock tones, it's really quite something.
The Friends of Dean Martinez have the purity of a trio, with ideas overlapping and commenting on one another. As they’ve matured, their music has spilled past traditional sounds into a new form with bent edges and a gorgeously dented heart. These performances testify to their power and undeniable grace, especially in the live setting.