I’m a fan of Howe Gelb and Giant Sand.
And The Band of Blacky Ranchette.
And Arizona Amp and Alternator.
See, there’s a certain aesthetic to his music that appeals a great deal to me. I’ve been hooked ever since I first heard Giant Sand’s Chore of Enchantment and the solo album Confluence in late 2004 or early 2005. They were recommended by a friend after we got talking about Richard Buckner. He assumed I would have heard them before, but I hadn’t. I was aware of Gelb’s name, of course.
Anyhoo, both really got under my skin.
The ramshackle off-the-map earlier releases are a joy, while Cover Magazine remains one of my favourite cover albums and one I recommend to those uninitiated with Mr Gelb. Likelwise, his Sno’ Angel Like You is just about as perfect as it gets and one that I’ve long been after on vinyl. All of these are important albums to me. Reset albums, I guess. Reference points for what I looked for in dusty off-road Americana.
Giant Giant Sand is a, eh, giant, version of Giant Sand. Hence the name Giant Giant Sand, I guess. Among the new faces joining Gelb’s Danish troupe is a couple of local Tucson musicians, however, it’s Maggie Bjorklund who stands out. Her pedal steel playing is exceptional. She’s Gelb’s Red Rhodes here and I could listen to that all day long.
Their first and only release at this point is the sprawling country rock opera, Tucson. The story here is the one of a chap who wants to escape his surroundings. Just ditch everything – family, friends, etc. Travis Henderson style. On his road-trip he finds out what jail at the Mexican border is like and finds love. The settings are familiar – both for the protagonist and us, the listeners. Sure, they’re a bit warped (dancing cacti and a confused river), but there’s a question of whether he’s really managed to get the Hell out of Tucson, or if he’s standing still and his dream is just that – a dream (“Find me a dream that lasts forever. Find me some truth I can feel. I’ve been thinking maybe never, cause I’ve been here just standing still”).
So, Tucson has all the makings of a favourite and I dare say you’ll likely say this is one old Jim here is mad about. Well, truth is, other than it being a pretty wonderful item (seriously, there has been a lot of care and attention gone into the package), I just never get that excited by it.
As I listen to this I ask myself “what’s with Giant Giant Sand? What’s with Tucson, and why don’t I feel it the way I do those Giant Sand albums?”
Well, mostly, it’s because of those different flavours and because it sounds a bit like a detour. The dusty landscapes are maybe just not off-road map enough for me, really. I love the idea of it, but it’s just not quite the album I wanted. It lacks the verve and punishing sun of The Rock Opera Years. That being said, there are some truly great moments. Some moving moments. Some helluva good moments.
Wind Blown Waltz eases us in. A fine tune with a lovely, eh, waltz. But, for my money, Forever and A Day is the best track here. It’s coloured and textured with all of that awesome Giant Sand stuff with some of the extra Giant. The main character (Gelb) defiant when he sings “Goodbye Suckers, I’ll be on my way”. It’s complete with mariachi-like trumpet and accordion. It’s full of swagger and confidence. I particularly like the “adios losers!” detour and the climax. The twanging guitars and trumpet crescendo. It’s simply brilliant; there really is no other way to describe it.
There’s a real traditional country vibe to some of this stuff, too… the riffing of the electric guitar, the use of the brushes, and the excellent Maggie Bjorklund with the pedal steel. The waltzing on Plane of Existence really gets me, though. I love the way it staggers really early on. Gelb dragging out “harbouring some resistance” and the way the band stop at certain points. Perfect delivery and execution, right there. It gets big and urgent in the last minute so before the fade.
It’s the sonic textures as well as the shifts in tone and pace that make a lot of this work, actually (as well as the freedom of the electric guitar). Undiscovered Country has a few thrills and the vocal on Love Comes Over You is pretty gorgeous. The lead on the latter isn’t handled by Gelb, but by Brian Lopez, who at times reminds me of M. Ward (who I like a great deal, so that’s a pretty good thing).
Likewise, Gelb’s presence isn’t felt on The Sun Belongs To You. The vocal here is gruff and the whole thing sounds like Calexico. Not a bad thing, but it’s here that I realise that what I love about Gelb isn’t just that he writes in a specific manner, but it’s his tone, phrasing and delivery that separate Giant Sand from their peers. Throughout the discography, the constant is Gelb. His hard edge… a rusted serrated edge. Like on We Don’t Play Tonight, which is a perfect tonic. A shift in mood. This guy is never feeling down or cursing when he’s on a losing streak, he shrugs “this shit is unlucky”. That’s it.
And as much as I like Ready or Not with it’s upright bass, finger clicking and jazz influenced piano, it doesn’t quite get beyond pleasant… it’s Norah Jones. It’s smoky. It’s nice. But it’s certainly not Mostly Wrong. Man, that’s a tune. Rough. Dusty. With more than a glass and a half of the Delta thrown in there. A perfect pre-amble for Hard Morning in a Soft Blur, which starts with that “adios losers” from earlier. The rhythm is exotic. It’s constant. Right till the end.
“They found water on Mars. Not much, but surely substantial”… I love Recovery Mission. It could have been lifted straight off Chore of Enchantment. Everything about it is great. The pace, mood, Gelb, and the “recovery” backing vocal.
Everyone appears to get a wee bit of singing time during Out of the Blue, while New River is more of that rough recorded stuff of Mostly Wrong. A sketch. A reminder that there’s not enough here to really excite those of us who dig what Gelb does.
Overall, when it hits its stride it’s great, but it’s just not consistent enough and, like I say, I attribute that to the fact that there’s maybe too many ingredients.
Or cooks and ingredients.
The package is wonderful, though. A lot of care and attention has gone in to creating something engaging. The art on the inner sleeves is exceptional, too… bringing the country rock opera to life.
Anyhoo, I think I’ll drop the needle on Forever And A Day again, cause that song is the business.