Howe Gelb: Future Standards

Gelb reminds us how good a songwriter he is, but his new record doesn't quite live up to its title.
Howe Gelb
Future Standards

Howe Gelb’s lengthy career as an indie rocker, sometimes going into weird places and often going into the Southwest and Americana, doesn’t point to where he is right now. Future Standards is a piano and lounge singer record. The title contains no irony; Gelb genuinely approaches a broad category of music with a straightforward intention. Playing it cool near the bar, seemingly hanging out with people from Cole Porter to Frank Sinatra, Gelb writes and sings songs that, in some world at least, will one day become standards, all with his own twist.

He almost does it too well. On the surface, it’s just another late night jazz album full of songs. Smoke curling through the wee small hours, it’s almost the last call, and the music has started to fade. Gelb at times catches the mood so that he’d fit in as background music. Cary Grant orders a drink while “Irresponsible Lovers” plays. The atmosphere fits, but we remember the scene and forget to buy the soundtrack.

Gelb’s easygoing delivery doesn’t call attention to itself, lending to this background sensibility, but it’s a confident stylistic choice. The songs carry themselves. The surprises here aren’t gospel choirs or off-kilter guitars. The song structures fit a classic mode even as they avoid redundancy. Gelb’s made it look easier than it is, which makes the record possible to overlook.

That sort of calm belies the specific beats that only Gelb hits. His lyrics need to be central for Future Standards to work, and he’s never afraid of following his roads there. The songs take odd looks at romantic relationships. “May You Never Fall in Love” comes from hurt and experience, sleepily offering advice best not taken. The mildly bouncy “Relevant” turns language around, playing with temperature puns amid smooth assonance.

Those sorts of moments that make a claim to standardness feel almost legitimate, but there aren’t quite enough of them. “Ownin’ It” is a good song, not unworthy of a lyrical read and sweet without treacle, but it starts to feel like a genre exercise. What redeems this number is the appearance of Lonna Kelley, Gelb’s duet partner on a few of these tracks. Her performance elevates the song just enough. The presence of Kelley throughout the disc makes for a much finer listen (and that’s no insult to Gelb’s vocals). Her work on opener “Terribly So” helps make that number one of the other highlights of the record.

Future Standards is an odd album, and it’s too early to tell if it hints at Gelb’s future direction (or if it should). It does reveal a particular focus on songwriting, and Gelb’s artistry here reminds us (in case decades of work didn’t) that it’s something he can do very well. A few of these songs could be standards, and most of them hold up well, but, even given the nature of the album, the occasional sonic dissipation keeps it from being a true classic, even if it’s a nice, unique addition to Gelb’s catalog.

RATING 6 / 10