Despite the title of this album, desert denizen Howe Gelb’s musical collective has remained remarkably consistent over the years, sounding pretty much the same no matter who his core band members are (for a long time his rhythm section was Joey Burns and John Convertino, who spun off to form Calexico, on this album it’s John Parish and Thøger Lund) or who his celebrity guests are (in the past, he’s worked with Juliana Hatfield, P. J. Harvey, Victoria Williams, and Neko Case). And he still indulgently (regrettably?) lets his daughters sing occasionally, on three tracks here, including a tossed-off cover of “Anarchy in the UK”.
It could be I’m succumbing to the geographical fallacy, wherein a band’s music is interpreted primarily as a function of their place of origin (in this case, Tucson, Arizona) with all the readymade cliches that go along with it, but Gelb himself often seems preoccupied with place, with the problems associated with achieving roots. His songs, too, amble along like drifting tumbleweed, at once unpredictable and inevitable, employing a loose, near hollow structure that’s reminiscent of a melancholy desolation, a world-weary, existential loneliness familiar to anyone who’s been under a big sky in a remote, barren landscape in the American West. This despite many songs having a European dateline—“Napoli”, “Hood (View from a Heidelberg Hotel)”. (Perhaps this is why the band is “all over the map.)
Gelb’s voice, recorded close like he’s croaking quietly in your ear, offers a counterpoint to the spaciousness, suggesting the way your thoughts can loom large even as the landscape dwarfs you. It remains a distinctive drawl, ruthlessly turning all vowels into diphthongs, making every your a yer, and making here and while two-syllable words. It’s a Willie Nelsonish idiosyncrasy that never distracts you from his lyrics, but immediately stamps any Giant Sand song instantly recognizable. And it remains remarkably supple, it’s equally effective conveying a deadpan irony, as on “Classico” or the mutated talking-blues number “Muss”, or a forlorn languor, as on “Remote” or “Hood”. On lines like “The maids at this hotel mostly can’t pronounce its name” he summons both moods at once. Like all good singers, he can repeat an innocuous lyric like “I’m in love with a fool of a girl”, (from “Fool”) and bring out unexpected shades of meaning with each utterance.
The instrumentation on All Over the Map, cut free from any technology that would date it, effectively captures the same moods: The upright bass, the brushes for drumsticks, and Anders Pederson’s forlorn lap-steel work evoke spaces wide-open yet intimate at the same time. The instrumental fragments “Ploy” and “Rag” refracts a snatch of lost Americana, and on “Drab” and “Les Forçats Innocents”, the band sounds like they’re making cantina music for the most somber, subdued bar imaginable. Gelb mostly sticks to acoustic guitar and piano, but occasionally he cranks up the distortion for some incisive, punishing leads. “Flying Around the Sun at Remarkable Speed” has a deserted-junkyard ambiance, abetted by Gelb’s razor-wire electric-guitar work and gusty squalls of feedback.
But unlike earlier efforts, this album never detours into patience-trying exercises in noise, never dallies in self-indulgent improvisation; it’s as though Gelb has realized that he no longer needs to plunge into the abyss of chaos to make listeners aware of its perpetual presence. You always can sense it, not too far off, during these shambling tracks, with the careening, lurching momentum and the various references to terrorism, New York City, anarchism, and paranoia. But the chaos never swallows the music, making the album a curious testament to hopefulness at the brink of annihilation.