For the new album Tucson, Howe Gelb has doubled the size of his band, so they’ve appropriately changed from Giant Sand to Giant Giant Sand. The switch, not in small part because the album centers on the developing expansiveness. The sound is wider than might be expected, although there’s nothing here that shouldn’t feel out of place to a Giant Sand fan. Conceptually, the album with its subtitle “A Country Rock Opera”, stretches out not only by having a loose narrative construct, but by pushing itself for as long as it can hold up, and maybe a little extra.
The band’s strength over the course of the long album lies in its ability to make so many styles cohere. Giant Giant Sand never strays too far from its Southwestern base, but it stuffs the disc with jazz, rockabilly, folk, blues, and more. If the album’s main character does travel too far on his road trip, the band makes sure it covers at least a couple continents, and they’re comfortable any place they find themselves.
“Forever and a Day” provides one of the album’s highlights, shifting both tempo and styles several times as our protagonist tries to figure out exactly how to leave. There’s an emotional difference between “Good luck, suckers / I’m on my way” and “Adios, losers”, brought about by the latter’s following a shift to light psychedelia. There’s something amiss here, but we’re not allowed to dwell on it for long. It’s a nice hitch in the song that keeps listeners off balance without losing momentum.
The group keeps the energy enough to keep the album moving, even when working in juxtaposition to Gelb’s dry delivery, but the album doesn’t rely on its regular rollicking approach. Tracks like “Love Comes Over You” deliver a simple beauty that gains power from its surroundings. Vocalist Lonna Kelley delivers a memorable, controlled vocal on the jazzy “Ready or Not”, which both foreshadows a later realization and leads nicely into the alley song “Mostly Wrong”.
That sort of sequencing pays off throughout the album. With its long running time (around 70 minutes), Tuscon needs artful construction not just on each track but across the whole. It’s unfortunate, then, that it stumbles late in its run. “Recovery Mission”, on its own, is an important, emotional song. It stems not from the album’s narrative, though, but as a reaction to the 2011 shooting of US Congressional Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona. The song, complete with children’s vocals, responds effectively to tragedy, and while it’s not out of place on the album, it seems to lose the thread a little, not only lyrically, but with the musical loss of energy.
It’s worth getting through, though, because key album moments are tucked in behind it, including the Tom Waitsian slag heap and the cumbia-influenced “Caranito”. Thematically, “Not the End of the World” makes a necessary epiphany, the sort you might have in classy bar. “Out of the Blue” provides an emotionally satisfying conclusion, even considering the somewhat ambiguous epilogue of “New River”. Tuscon requires patient listening, but aside from that one vital misstep, the album keeps moving. It’s combined a pleasing unpredictability with steadiness that supports Gelb’s operatic vision.