As much as I like Giant Sand and its various offshoots (Calexico, OP8, Blacky Ranchette, etc.), I know very little about the man in the center, Howe Gelb — and I like to keep it that way. My image of Gelb is of some sort of Southwestern mystic in the middle of musical convergences, like Van Morrison summoning forth miragesin the American desert, or like the Meat Puppets without peyote. His “home base”, Giant Sand, could alternately be lo-fi or stunningly articulate, could sound like Neil Young disinterring Miles Davis one minute and then drop back to let members of Gelb’s family take the mike like the whole album was some family reunion karaoke party. It’s pretty safe to say that with few exceptions, each Gelb project has been unlike the others (with, admittedly, plenty of “what the hell is he up to?” moments to go along with the triumphs), and Gelb seems to like that just fine. It’s hard to think of many people who follow their muse with such a sense of inner peace — and the ones I can think of at the moment all seem to live in the desert.
While the heat and sand of the American Southwest have always had a place in Gelb’s music, it has little to do with the latest addition to his burgeoning solo career, The Listener. Gelb recorded much of the album during a six-month stay in Denmark, largely applying only finishing touches when he got back to the States. So while The Listener shakes a little sand out of its boots, it’s almost entirely informed by the locales and influences Gelb found overseas. If there’s a blood relative to The Listener in Gelb’s catalog, it’s probably his album of piano ballads, Lull. The piano dominates much of The Listener — not in some dramatic sturm und drang way, but in spry episodes like “Torque (Tango de la Tongue)” and “Piango”. “Glisten” kicks the album off with a stately piano instrumental before “Felonious” admits, “the piano’s stealing Lou Reed licks / Licks that he probably stole / Wish they were Duke Ellington / Like I wish we’d never get old.” That hint of old jazz also weaves its way here and there in other ways, such as the mournful horn that punctuates “Jason’s List”. It all makes for one of Gelb’s most easily accessible records.
When Gelb does look westward, it’s through the wistful eyes of a temporary expatriate. “Cowboy Boots” muses, “back home I hear / The rains have failed this year / The mountains are on fire / The situation is dire / I’m out here with all the gray skies / And still don’t recognize what they call summer”. It’s a bittersweet song that weighs the relative merits of Denmark’s beer and bread against the chile relleno plates back home in Tucson, accurately evoking the image of Gelb straddling two worlds in his “cowboy boots on cobblestones”. Gelb rocks out Giant Sand-style a little bit, though. “Lying There” bears a familiar lope, and “B 4 U (Do Do Do)” shifts from a grimy Los Lobos-style guitar riff into a slightly bent piano bounce. Throughout every song is Gelb’s patented ramshackle sense of arrangement; like Tom Waits, he instinctively picks musicians (like John Convertino and Joey Burns, who went on to form Calexico) who favor feel over precision. The newest inclusions to the Gelb stable are a whole host of Danish musicians, particularly the up-and-coming band Under Byen. Under Byen’s vocalist Henrietta Sennenvaldt adds a lovely Bjorkish lilt to “Torque (Tango de la Tongue)” (Danish singer Marie Frank brings a similar quality to “Blood Orange” — must be more pixie blood near the Arctic Circle than we first thought).
The combination of the two styles — Gelb’s newfound sense of stateliness and his traditional windburned sense of arrangement — make for a new peak in his career. The Listener is imminently accessible, but it’s still Howe Gelb, just getting some friends together, finding a way to make plucked violin strings, auto harps, violin saws, and congas all work together. When Giant Sand first went on hiatus, it felt like something was lost. And while the next Giant Sand record is definitely an eagerly awaited thing, it’s heartening to know that Gelb knows exactly how to handle his newfound musical freedom.