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By Nate Jackson
It seemed like hopping a fast train to obscurity.
In the early '90s, Henry Frayne took a break from the flagging fortunes of his rock group Moon Seven Times and started making tapes of his exotic solo guitar music. The tuneage avoided anything remotely rock & roll—no screaming singers or danceable rhythms. Instead, it emphasized sounds both hypnotic and atmospheric. People told him it was beautiful. No one broached the word "obscure," but maybe that was too obvious. His ethereal noises were mostly considered nothing but deep background meanderings. Then there's the name he chose for the project: Lanterna.
Scratch your head and look it up in the dictionary, but you won't find the word "lanterna" anywhere. And you'll never utter "lanterna" in a daily conversation unless you're talking about Frayne. Which more people may soon be doing because, ever so discreetly, Lanterna is getting noticed. Fifteen seconds of his song "B-Minor" was used in a trailer for Steven Spielberg's latest big-screen splash, Catch Me If You Can. "West Side Highway" from his most recent album, Sands, was featured on the 2002 National Public Radio CD sampler All Songs Considered.
Naturally, Frayne learned in a rather roundabout way that word of Lanterna was spreading—while toiling at his day job as a master control operator at public radio station WILL at the University of Illinois.
"I'm sitting here, engineering All Things Considered, and then there's this sound. I thought, "Oh, yeah, that sounds familiar. Boy, that sounds interesting. . . . Hey, that's mine!"
Any sense of boyish excitement leaving Frayne's lips belies the measured, deep cadences of his voice. It's exactly the sound of starched decency, the sort that practically screams the letters N-P-R. However, his gig twiddling the knobs of obsolete equipment at a public radio station won him no favors and certainly didn't help lift Lanterna to the upper echelons of NPR playlists with the latest Beck and Morcheeba CDs right away.
Then again, Frayne's eventual recognition was probably fated. That's because Lanterna and NPR seemed like such a fine fit. It's music begging to serve as segueing melodies between a wistful report on a vanishing river or a recent recovery of some beautiful, fragile work of art.
At least that's what Lanterna sounds like. Most of it is Frayne playing guitar that's half wispy reverie, half moody film soundtrack. Surprisingly, Frayne says there's little studio wizardry on the Sands album. Instead, most of it is just good ol' guitar delay and reverb. There's also the matter of his playing technique.
"My producer, a classical-music guy, asked me how I change the tone with each strum. I told him I just strum the guitar here and further down the neck, pluck the strings closer to the bridge," Frayne explains. This hypnotic neck work creates a sometimes melancholy, often stunning atmospheric sound. It's a natural way of gathering moody vibes, as opposed to employing the many studio tricks that so-called "ambient" producers use to replicate the quiet airs of nature.
The 38-year-old Frayne feels this helps get him noticed, and he finds the attention both disconcerting and welcome.
"I've had some weird experiences," he says. "Women who I would not expect would be Lanterna fans, like tall, blonde college students, have told me certain songs of mine have brought them to tears. It gives me some hope, though, that different people could get into Lanterna."
Maybe it's all a harbinger for finally getting Frayne laid. Or not. "After 22 years of touring with bands, I've never 'benefited' on the road from my music," he says. "There's always something else to do, another gig, packing up and going."
Excuses, excuses, Henry. Don't you know music—even NPR music—is supposed to help you get down?
Lanterna performs at the Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600. Mon., 9 p.m. Free. 21+.