In the mid-‘90s, journalists, cognizant of a burgeoning scene comprised of a contingent of artists including Jayhawks, Bottlerockets, Son Volt and Wilco—bands bred on the ethos of punk rock and country—felt compelled to fulfill their duties and christen this movement with an identifiable, “creative” categorization. Hence, “alt.country”. The accolades poured in on bands both stellar and mediocre, as major labels joined the fray, signing any band that owned a country twang. In 1995, a newly launched ‘zine even took inspiration partly from Uncle Tupelo, borrowing the title of their 1991 debut record, calling it No Depression.
If justice existed in this blind-eye pocketing, the individuals running that publication might have dubbed it Swerve, Ramp or Long Stem Rant—appropriately naming it after an album by Howe Gelb and his band Giant Sand, the oft-overlooked, unheralded countrified-rock genius. Gelb’s voluminous oeuvre has been staggering, producing more than one record a year since its inception in 1985, several years before the alt.country genre would even be labeled. While the earliest Sand efforts bowed at the classic rock altar, exposing a penchant for straight, no chaser Neil Young/Dylan-esque roots-rock, it would be the union of Gelb and future Calexico members John Convertino and Joe Burns beginning with 1992’s double-dose of Ramp and the sonic epic Center of the Universe that would define its aesthetic for the next decade up to this, their all-covers collection, Cover Magazine.
Eclectic would be the operative term to describe Gelb’s picks and you would expect nothing less from the quirky Tuscon, Arizona native. From Black Sabbath to Sonny and Cher to X to Goldfrapp, Cover Magazine evokes both the campfire-spook ambiance of 1995’s BBQ and the subtle beauty of their 2000 masterpiece, Chore of Enchantment. Giant Sand begins Cover Magazine with Marty Robbin’s “El Paso” on a delicate, restrained note—accompanied by barroom piano and El-Mariachi-style guitar plucking, Gelb barely raises his voice above a whisper. But the mellow vibe doesn’t last long—“El Paso” is coupled with a thunderous version of Neil Young’s “Out on the Weekend” where Young’s voice from the original is sampled in the chorus. Polly Jean Harvey lends backing vocal shrieks on X’s “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline” while Gelb provides shredding, stark acoustics and taut rhythms in place of the original’s ‘50s-style revved up punk rock guitars. Sabbath’s “Iron Man” is transformed into a straight-faced and affecting jazz-bent lounge piece, with conga-padding detail, trumpet solo and disturbing use of a running water faucet sound effect. Gelb even includes the infamous warped-fucked “I Am Iron Man” opening. Meanwhile, the take on Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On” is sweet perfection, employing infectious piano and smooth bass hooks to die for. Fittingly, the song features a duet between Gelb and his wife, trading candy-sweet la-di-da-di-di’s and la-di-da-di-da’s. Other artists covered include, Johnny Cash, Nick Cave and Gelb’s beloved late friend and eternal Sand member, Rainier Ptacek. From Ramp to Center of the Universe to Purge and Slouch to Glum to BBQ to Chore of Enchantment, and now to Cover Magazine, Giant Sand has produced yet another impeccable slice of Americana.
// Notes from the Road
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