[2 September 2008]
Giant Sand mastermind Howe Gelb is equal parts Jack Kerouac, Willie Nelson, and Raymond Chandler on his collective’s latest album. The Tucson, Arizona-based rocker once again proves to be the quintessential hardscrabble outlaw-poet. Here he gives listeners a sense of riding shotgun as he tours the Southwest’s dark and lonely pathways with eyes trained on the road and a solitary headlight illuminating the way. The 13 tracks which make up the album establish a fresh and rewarding style that might best be described as cowboy noir.
These are weird, wonderful tunes of hard luck, romantic exchanges and many, many miles set against musical backdrops marked by expressive guitars and piano, steadying rhythms and beautiful vocal textures. Gelb’s assertion that “Out here you feel every mile and you feel every yard / Leaving love alone, I’ve been kicking myself…” from “Can Do” could serve as the album’s thesis statement
With no help, Gelb can express a range of emotions, moving from detached narration to lonely lament (with a bit of Nelson’s vocal quaver, though a deeper, drier tone) in a few easy moves. The album, however, also features stellar background vocals (from the likes of Neko Case) adding another layer of humanity, depth and, at times, uneasiness to what are already striking and edgy songs.
proVISIONS starts off strong. Early standouts like “Stranded Pearl”, “Can Do”, and “The Desperate Kingdom of Love” establish the album’s pace and capacity for dynamic and meaningful contrast while infusing Gelb’s enigmatic, charismatic personality into the songs. proVISIONS never suffers a letdown as shown in its steady march of excellence all the way to late, great tunes like “Saturated Beyond Repair” and the closer “Well Enough Alone”.
Gelb’s tunes are so colorful and cinematic that it’s easy to either overlook or fail to mention his gifts for creating beauty and melody even in the midst of heartache and trial (even a foreboding tune like “Pitch & Sway” can enjoy and support a beautiful piano interlude). This ability is best evidenced here on two songs in the album’s middle. “Increment of Love” gently lilts along, guided by Gelb’s croaky sing-speak until about halfway through. As the song’s instrumental break comes to a close, a single celestial guitar strum introduces a fleeting passage in which Gelb delivers one of the album’s best melodies.
Next up is “Spiral”, a track that opens with a gentle piano intro which establishes jazzy tonal colors and sweetly soaring melody before giving Gelb the space to whisper: “There’s a lot of people out there / Having a hard time tonight / Amongst the whispers of revolution and shouts of ‘hang on tight’ / A lot of crippled hearts out there / Some will never mend…” A testament to the tragic beauty that can be found in the hardships of real life, the song is the one of the album’s strongest, most compelling moments even in its delicacy. Cascading and even more expressive piano passages reemerge throughout the track.
There’s not much to dislike about this record with its meandering instrumentals and rapid-fire vocal delivery. “Muck Machine” is a little less accessible than other parts of the album, but even tracks like that provide moments of excitement and sweetness. This collection is consistently engaging, consistently makes room for glorious little curveballs, and is consistently well-played.
Relative to the performance and execution of the record, Gelb once again shows both musical shrewdness and sensitivity in supporting his talent by surrounding himself with the immense talents of others. This incarnation of Giant Sand (featuring Danish performers Thoger T. Lund, Peter Dombernowsky, and Anders Pedersen) handles the material with skill and understanding while friends including Case, M. Ward, and Isobel Campbell lend their significant faculties.
An album that’s never dull, music that’s full of melodrama and humanity, a personality in Gelb that’s big enough yet genuine enough to pull it all together. That’s what proVISIONS has to offer and it more than delivers.