Guest post: Catfish Vegas on Howe Gelb/Giant Sand

Howe Gelb’s Giant Sand plays Friday night at Modified in Phoenix. Given Gelb’s roots in Tucson, I asked Catfish Vegas (also based in the Old Pueblo) for his thoughts on the show and Gelb’s new album, proVISIONS – a sort of primer, if you will. He responded with a wonderfully written piece that I’m almost sure I could never return in kind.

Howe Gelb is undeniably a creature of the desert. A fantastic mix of things thorny, creepy and strange exist together under this great expanse of sky and rugged, towering mountains. Everything is baked by the heat and the weather is either dry or a deluge, seldom anything in the middle. It’s one of the few places in the world where “close enough” counts as sane. Howe may be a transplant, but he fits here.

There’s a reason Howe’s own term for his music is “erosion rock.” You can imagine nature working away at the songs, shaping them with wind and rain, just as centuries of blowing dust wears grooves in boulders.

Howe has a revolving set of projects, each uniquely named to tell one from another. But Howe is probably the only person on Earth who knows exactly why one record is Giant Sand while another is a Howe Gelb solo. He calls Giant Sand “a mood,” but pretty much leaves it at that.

Most of his songs fall into one of three rough categories – shuffling acoustic tunes that drag along his trademark dusty drawl; full-on noise rockers that explode and roll over you like a thunderstorm; and the ghostly, spooky incantations that sound like Tom Waits traded in the Tropicana for a century-old adobe, drawing inspiration not from the Skid Row neon, but the geographical and mental “out here.”

That’s these days at least – dig back into the Giant Sand records of the 1980s and you’ll a punk-rock carnival, psychedelic wall-of-noise tunes, some tight drums-and-guitar garage-blues rock and occasionally what sounds like a more direct Neil Young influence.

Howe’s latest Giant Sand album, proVISIONS, is a natural extension of the last Giant Sand album, 2004’s Is All Over the Map. It combines road music with late night music, pairs the off-kilter with the straight-ahead, and like most of Howe Gelb’s music, turns on a dime from being vaguely unsettling to feeling like you’ve just settled into an easy chair. It sets tunes up like bottles on a rickety wooden fence, and shoots ’em down. I think Howe sees songs as playthings as much as creations, and never fails to find a way to shove a square peg through a round hole.

Howe doesn’t make bad records, but it must be said from the outset that proVISIONS is easily among his best. The songs only meander when they ought to, the guitars float in on the wind, the piano trickles along, the percussion is a tight and watchful presence and throughout, Howe’s vocals sound like the cryptic musings of some mountain-top sage.

The songs fit together as a whole package remarkably well – and on a number of levels. First off, if you’ve never heard Giant Sand, this latest record is a tremendous introduction to his whole unique style, that arid and mad sound that he’s developed over nearly 30 years. Next, it’s a record of marvelous consistency, a shimmering and excellently produced work that leaves enough open space for all the varied instrumentation to really breathe. And as we run down the end of this crazy 2008, it’s a welcome and necessary step back from the Too Much society.

Howe is a songwriter who likes using words like “retrograde” and “molecule” and “out here” and “chromosome” in his lyrics, twisting rhymes out of the air and soldering them together until what otherwise might’ve been nonsense starts taking the shape of something else all together.

Now playing primarily with a tight band of Danish imports, Howe also brings in plenty of guests for this one. Neko Case adds her own layer of atmospheric mystery to “Without A Word.” M. Ward shows up on “Can Do,” a sort of aimlessly-cruising-in-an-open-convertible song.

“Increment of Love” rides along with a spooky and twisting lead guitar, while “Desperate Kingdom of Love” (PJ Harvey cover) is Howe’s own version of a late-period Tom Waits-style ballad. “Saturated Beyond Repair” arrived with an extra jaunt, a sort of caffeinated boost, courtesy of a new drum tempo and some saucy horns.

Feedback washes all over “World’s End State Park,” which sounds like the cinematic accompaniment to a journey gone wrong as amateur sleuths find themselves in over their heads in the sharp late-afternoon sunlight of a deserted amusement park. The album closes with “Well Enough Alone,” this set’s closest song to the sort of mid-tempo country-rocker that Howe could’ve built ridden to a much more lucrative career. It’s the sort of tune you can catch a good hold of and just ride for a while.

While listening to this record, I checked out Howe’s website and found a sort of tour diary that’s revelatory at times. On a recent meeting with his friend Robert Plant, Howe has this to write: “When you get to be my age, the planet gets a whole lot darker and colder from the grand lack of elders that have left this existence for the next.”

A large share of that sentiment is rooted in what’s obviously the still-difficult death almost 11 years ago of his best friend and longtime bandmate Rainer Ptacek.

But from the outside looking in, it’s certainly worth telling Howe that he’s undoubtably one of those elders himself, making this world lighter and warmer, with a beat-up guitar at the center of a musical eccentricity that grows more captivating with each successive record.

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