It’s hard to believe that 25 years have passed since the release of Valley of Rain, the first Giant Sand album. And it’s nearly as long since the late ‘80s follow-ups (Ballad of a Thin Line Man, Storm, and The Love Songs) that helped to form a template for what the alt. country scene of the ‘90s and ‘00s could be. Much as Howe Gelb has been keen to unburden himself of any such “godfather” role, there is no denying that the cross-pollination of country styles with punk, psychedelic rock, jazz, sunbaked acid blues, and more that “defined” alt. country could be traced back in one form or another to Gelb’s work with Giant Sand and, before that, Giant Sandworms.
One of the problems with such a burden is that it can work to deny individual vision or can suggest that an artist’s best work is over. It might be better to think of Giant Sand as an institution more akin to The Fall, a band who it has never been terribly easy to imitate. Though slightly shorter lived than Mark E. Smith’s project, Gelb’s work has a similar bewilderingly prolific output and has continued to plow its furrow despite difficulties, label changes, shifting trends, or any of the obstacles that might otherwise befall a commercially unstable venture such as Giant Sand.
Like one of his main influences, Neil Young (also routinely named as a godfather of alt. country), Gelb has shown fidelity to his vision and has been repaid with a decent measure of fidelity from his fans, who have followed him from project to project, label to label, obscure gig to major gig to obscure gig. In a year that has seen renewed acclaim for Young’s new work, it seems fitting that we should get a fresh Giant Sand release from a label (UK-based Fire Records) that is keen not only to support Gelb’s new work, but also to dedicate itself to a reissue program of those early, classic Giant Sand albums.
Blurry Blue Mountain, like many of Gelb’s solo and band recordings, presents newly written material alongside reinventions of work from his back catalog. The emphasis is on revisiting and renewing rather than retreading, and old songs like “Thin Line Man” and “Lucky Star Love” (previously known as “Loving Cup” and “Blanket of Stars”) get new costumes to try on. Like his beloved jazzmen (he’s particularly fond of Thelonius Monk), Gelb knows that radical reinvention of supposedly familiar can be, when the stars are aligned and the musicians in the zone, as thrillingly new as anything. Unlike Dylan, who restricts his costume changes to live performance, Gelb prolifically releases his endless reworkings as recordings.
Gelb knows that there are many things you can do with a word and his writing has always been alive to the slipperiness of phonemes, to the shifting sands of meaning, spelling, and pronunciation. His work is never fixed, because language is never fixed. He extends the same logic to his songcraft, showing that there are many things you can do with a song, too. This songplay (a logical extension of wordplay), along with a desire to travel (“Endlessly restlessly wanderlusted encrusted” is how he describes himself) and an insatiable musical curiosity has led Gelb in recent years to redo his material with a gospel choir (2006’s Sno Angel Like You), a group of flamenco musicians (this year’s Howe Gelb and a Band of Gypsies ), his former bandmates from Calexico (the digital-only Melted Wires album, also from this year), and here, of course, his longterm vehicle, Giant Sand.
The Giant Sand of Blurry Blue Mountain is a six-piece group that includes the Danish musicians who appeared on 2008’s proVISIONS (Thøger Lund, Peter Dombernowsky, Anders Pedersen, and Nikolaj Heyman), plus Phoenix-based singer Lonna Kelley. It was recorded in Denmark, where Gelb spends part of the year, with Kelley’s vocals added in Arizona. Place is important to Giant Sand and, like many of the group’s albums, this one comes with a cover that connects to its titular geographical reference. It’s an unpopulated place, as much a product of imagination as physical geography. On his website, Gelb describes it as “a broad landscape that has seldom been loitered in” and that the recordings convey a “space between the waking world and the sleeping one”.
This blurriness is echoed in the dreamy, meandering narratives of Gelb’s songs. The soundworld of the album is one of warmth and intimacy, Gelb’s voice a whisper in the ear, the bass and percussion a persistent but comforting presence. Occasional shards of electric guitar pierce the haze but, like lightning in mist, do not dispel it. Some of the most piercing (and beautiful) guitar lines appear on “Monk’s Mountain”, a song that speaks of freezes and thaws, of whispering pines. Slowly, it dawns that the Monk of the title is Thelonius, and that the song’s about leaving the country for the icy cool of the city. Gelb’s poetry is splendid: “fingers as such/will never touch/rusted tractor junk/when the cold shadows clear/and what appears/is a monk”.
Time is another notable theme of this album. Opening track “Fields of Green” reflects ruefully on the loss of heroes (“the bleeding trailblazers”) and how awareness of loss quickens as one gets older. Its final verse turns the tables and finds Gelb ruminating on his own status as a pathfinder for younger seekers, though he’s quick to deny such a position. The song leaves enough clues to suggest a consideration of Howe Gelb as an artist encountering a late voice, a voice that looks back on life’s experiences, its inevitable losses, lessons learned and badges earned. “Erosion” opens with a chilly reference to the reaper’s repeated visits, before detouring through typical Gelb wordplay (including references to Merle Haggard and British one-hit wonders Thunderclap Newman) and resolving in a touching promise of continued fidelity. “Time Flies” refines temporal reflection to aching tanka-like economy, striking a balance between the pain of transience and the magic of the moment in a manner that recalls Iris Dement’s “My Life”.
Elsewhere, we are treated to scorched rockabilly (“Ride the Rail”), piano-based romantic yearning (“Chunk of Coal”, “Lucky Star Love”), swamp boogie (“Brand New Swamp Thing”), and, to counteract the general hush of the album, some mildly coruscating rock (“Thin Line Man”: the coruscation may not be new, but the Dylan impressions halfway through are). The album closes with more aching piano balladry in the form of “Love a Loser”, strengthening the impression of “Blurry Blue Mountain” as one of the more romantic outings for Gelb and his band. Perhaps the blue mountain is his blue heaven, after all.
The countryesque simplicity of many of these songs only asserts Gelb’s standing as an alternative to mainstream country music, whether he likes the position or not. It’s understandable that he would not want to be seen as a standard bearer for a genre (perhaps a non-genre) as slippery and transient as alt. country (“whatever that is”, as No Depression used to say) when his own work has a history and a consistency that has outlasted any such label. But, for strategic purposes, it would be as well for those who still wish to suggest the progressive possibilities of country to have work of this quality in their arsenal. Here’s to the next 25 years.