There are few bands extant today that approach music with the utter guilelessness of Giant Sand. Not to imply that the Tucson-based trio ever lapses into savantry — the members know exactly what they’re doing — but under the direction of singer/guitarist Howe Gelb, Giant Sand espouses a play-free-or-die aesthetic that straddles hippiedom and punk (which, aside from the clothes, aren’t all that different when you come right down to it). At times, the band variously resembles a roadhouse incarnation of Sun Ra’s Arkestra or a rudimentary Grateful Dead, but whatever the mood, there’s an implicit guarantee of astral projection in everything Giant Sand does.
During a brief stint in New York, he led an unrelated early combo called Giant Sandworms. That group released one EP, a five-song 7-inch of off-kilter electro-rock that owes a rudimentary debt to Roxy Music, Devo and XTC. From there, the Pennsylvania-born Gelb moved to the more sympathetic environs of Tucson, Arizona, where his cosmic cowboy wanderings adapted magnificently. Augmented by bassist Scott Garber and two drummers (playing on different cuts), Gelb recorded Valley of Rain, as thorny an outcropping of Southwestern ambience as anything this side of Townes Van Zandt. Gelb manages to integrate elements from the western side of C&W without sounding condescending — particularly since his animated vocals always resonate, but never twang unnecessarily. Green on Red’s Chris Cacavas adds piano to one song.
Ballad of a Thin Line Man brought singer/guitarist Paula Jean Brown (who had served a short tenure as Jane Wiedlin’s replacement in the Go-Go’s) into the fold. Her rich harmonies add considerable emotion to the acoustic songs, while Gelb shines on the ringing, Neil Young-inspired rockers. Guests on the LP include Falling James (Leaving Trains), who co-wrote and sings “Last Legs,” a smoky piano ballad with an atmospheric ’30s feel. A peppy cover of Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” speeds up the song and adds piano, but keeps its basic sound intact with mangy singing and noisily strummed guitar.
Brown moved over to bass, Garber left and Neil Harry joined to play almost imperceptible pedal steel. (Drummer Tom Larkins was still maintaining his concurrent membership in both Giant Sand and Naked Prey.) The crisp production on Storm plays up Gelb’s wiry, minimal guitar, an invigorating contrast in we-gotta-get-outta-this-place plaints like “Town With Little or No Pity,” “Bigger Than That” and “Town Where No Town Belongs.” A distinctive and invigorating album.
The fractious scat-singing of “Almost the Politician’s Wife” and the shambling beatnik prose of “Fingernail Moon, Barracuda and Me” are about the only streams-of-outré-consciousness to trickle over the sides of The Love Songs‘ solid, Band-like dam of chunky riffs and churning organ (Gelb and Green on Red’s Chris Cacavas switch off on keys). The restraint only intensifies the wallop packed by Gelb’s lyrics. “One Man’s Woman/No Man’s Land” is a litany of betrayal, with Gelb carefully piling on the clichés (“One man’s meat is another man’s poison…”) until he delivers the kicker (“One man’s woman is…another man’s woman”). It’s positively jolting, as is the medicine-show blues “Wearing the Robes of Bible Black.” A misguided Teutonic cover of Leiber and Stoller’s “Is That All There Is?” suggests that Gelb has spent entirely too much time in Europe but, digested in its entirety, The Love Songs is Giant Sand’s most consistent, clear disc. Another significant development is the arrival of drummer John Convertino, who has been with Gelb ever since. (The CD adds four bonus tracks, including a cover of Rare Earth’s “Get Ready.”)
Long Stem Rant finds both its greatest strength (a contagious, breathless spontaneity) and its greatest weakness (a surfeit of tangled loose ends) in the circumstances of its creation — a sleepless, cathartic one-weekend spurt of near-total improv that followed hot on the heels of Gelb and Brown’s divorce. That helps account for the raw emotion that pours from Gelb on “Loving Cup,” but the electric intensity that he and drummer John Convertino (the entire band here) generate can only be traced to more supernatural sources (and isolation in a windowless barn — pictured on the cover — where it was recorded). Seconds-long stretches of jazzy, freewheeling raves, though often niftily titled (“Patsy Does Dylan,” “Lag Craw”) add little aesthetically, but do contribute to the you-are-there atmosphere.
Swerve mates the best elements of the previous two releases, tempering Long Stem Rant‘s scalding emotionalism with more strictly implemented structure. There’s a blurry, almost numb feel to the matter-of-fact fatalism of “Can’t Find Love” and the mumbling “Sisters & Brothers”; the mercurial jamfests — by dint of title (“Swerver,” “Swerving,” “Swervette”) and sound (a desolately creeping art-blues wave) — appear to have been hacked from a single piece of rough cloth. The cover of Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand” features backing by Poi Dog Pondering; other guests include Juliana Hatfield, Falling James, Steve Wynn and Chris Cacavas.
With Ramp, Gelb seems to have found a way to propel himself at will into a deconstruction zone where boogie can mutate into pre-rock vocal harmony (“Warm Storm”) and Sun Ra can be construed as a lounge lizard (the slurry “Jazzer Snipe”). The band takes a more aggressive tack than it has for a long while, with the volume turned up past bedtime levels for most of the set — and clear into call-the-cops territory on the gnarled “Romance of Falling,” with counterpoint vocals by Victoria Williams. Lovers of polar opposites should relish the touching version of “Welcome to My World” by septuagenarian spiritual adviser Pappy Allen, a desert denizen who offered much aid and comfort to the band. The heads-down rockism of the loud’n’proud Center of the Universe is clearly descended from Crazy Horse, particularly when Convertino and bassist Joey Burns lock into a groove as primordial as the one that propels the harsh “Seeded (Tween Bone and Bark).” Gelb doles out more guitar freakouts than he has in some time, with uniformly cranium-expanding results — most notably on the harrowing “Loretta and the Insect World.” But for the most part, he eschews indulgent side trips and works them into reasonably structured rock songs, ranging from the Quicksilver-styled “Year of the Dog” to the frothy Cal-pop of “Milkshake Girl.” A wise idea indeed.
The same can’t be said of Purge & Slouch, a collection of songs and (mostly) fragments that practically has “contractual obligation fulfilled” stamped on its cover. Much jam-session tomfoolery ensues, with the sole reward being a chance to hear Arizona legend Al Perry scrabble out some proto-garage licks on “Slander.” Gelb certainly has some ability as a johnny-on-the-spot improviser, but formless pieces like “Santana, Castanada & You” don’t show it off. The album is almost saved by the presence of the dispirited, incontestably brilliant “Elevator Music,” which chronicles 30-plus years of rock de-evolution with such precision that it deserves an exhibit all its own if anyone gets around to opening a parallel-universe Anti-Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. The live, limited-edition Stromausfall was sold by mail-order only.
The murmured, tentative tones of Glum befit the album’s title. Part of the moodiness can no doubt be blamed on the enervating experience of major-label linkage (and partly on the death of Allen, who closes the album with a tear-jerking rendition of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”). Gelb’s quietly shamanistic attributes manifest themselves to best effect on the mercurial title track and the uncommonly confrontational “Yer Ropes” (which is veined with slide guitar, courtesy Peter Holsapple), but his unilateral rejection of form can get a bit tiring, especially when the meandering “Frontage Rd.” runs smack into the stoner fusion of “1Helvakowboy Song.” Live, some of these antics can be enthralling; on record, the feeling is more like being three hours into your pal’s drunken revelry after you’ve agreed to be the designated driver. Backyard Barbecue Broadcast (aka BBQ), culled from a pair of live radio broadcasts, remedies that situation: the down-home, mostly acoustic performances, while marked by the same waywardness, practically resound with giddiness (notably the 22-minute “BBQ Suite,” which fuses five of the band’s live staples into a Dead-like trance-mission). Sometime member Bill Elm (who also plays in Friends of Dean Martinez) adds a decidedly back-porch feel with judiciously underplayed steel guitar.
Folks wanting to test these, er, waters can dip into two equally worthy pools. Giant Songs draws pretty evenly from the first four Giant Sand discs, adding three tracks from Blacky Ranchette’s Heartland. The Giant Sandwich CD is a particularly good choice, as it nearly doubles the LP’s number of what Gelb’s notes call “shy” (read: hard to find) songs and steps rather confidently forward with some previously unheard material, like the very early “Artists.” Without overlapping Giant Songs at all, Giant Songs Two compiles tracks from all the proper albums — Valley of Rain through Swerve, including Heartland and Sage Advice.
The Band of Blacky Ranchette is a parallel Gelb outfit in which he indulges a passion for Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers. Though seldom unauthentic (Gelb’s Appalachian roots break the soil of every track), Blacky’s eponymous bow is only marginally distinct from Giant Sand. Covers of Willie Dixon’s “Evil” (with manic slide guitar sawing by Rainer Ptacek) and Neil Young’s “Revolution Blues” diverge only in Gelb’s drawling delivery. Heartland is more unusual — only the angst-ridden “Roof’s on Fire” is the least bit Sand-y — and emphasizes the western facet in its high lonesome duskiness. Gelb’s weary, weathered croon gives an empathetic kick to the wistful title track and “Moon Over Memphis”; he proves himself a solid roadhouse piano player as well.
Recorded piecemeal over several sessions in ’89 and ’90, Sage Advice further westernizes the sound — a rending version of Waylon Jennings’ “Trouble Man” underscores the outlaw feel — by generously slathering Gelb’s spooky desert ballads with Dobro and pedal steel. Blacky sneaks back onto Sand territory again, as well — reinventing Long Stem Rant‘s “Loving Cup” as a western swing two-step and again, retitled “Blanket of Stars,” as a mournful, Williams-esque croon. The CD of Sage Advice lassos six of Heartland‘s best tracks as a bonus.
Many of the fifteen songs on Gelb’s Dreaded Brown Recluse can be found — albeit in radically different form — Giant Sand albums, but digressions like the acoustic (but still dissonant) treatment of “Loretta & the Insect World” are pleasant in a manner familiar to anyone who has ever pored over sketchbooks by a favorite artist. Gelb also revisits some older favorites to good effect (especially the epic “Bible Black, Book II”). He may come across as purposefully obscure — or even downright dotty at times — but there’s no disputing the genuine, life-affirming spirit Howe Gelb brings to his music. Long may he rant.
Spoke is a side project of Burns and Convertino, who also moonlighted together in Friends of Dean Martinez until mid-’96, when they departed that instrumental fraternity (which continued on without them) and formed yet another group, Calexico.