With over 40 records under his belt, including those recorded with Giant Sand, Howe Gelb may be one of music’s most prolific artists. Gelb has remarked that he doesn’t consider himself a songwriter, but his expert musicianship and clever song lyrics beg to differ. His latest album, Gathered, is a perfect example of Gelb’s talents and possibly one of the most poignant and tender albums in his vast catalog. Listening to Gathered is like being at a dinner party with Gelb at the head of the table, telling stories, offering his sagacity, and taking the listener on clever lexical excursions.
The album opens with the introspective “On the Fence”, which pulls from Gelb’s alt-country origins. When he sings the lines, “Lenny talks to the ponies about the lasses and odds unbeatable”, Gelb is foreshadowing the next song, which is a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “A Thousand Kisses Deep”. The lines turn up in a different incarnation in the original Cohen version. The lyrical twist is a perfect example of Gelb’s love of wordplay and cryptic lyrical ciphers, which appear on the album in other places as well. “A Thousand Kisses Deep” is a snappy flamenco-flavored version of the original, guest-starring M. Ward—an artist Gelb helped to put on the musical map. Ward’s breezy vocals contrast Gelb’s deep, raspy verses, which at times could pass for Cohen himself.
Gelb is a prolific collaborator. Over the years he has teamed up with a wide range of musicians, including Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelly, Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle, PJ Harvey, Kristin Hersh, KT Tunstall, and most recently the Colorist Orchestra—an experimental orchestra collective from Belgium whom Gelb played with on his most recent European tour. Besides Ward, a host of international guests add their various flavors to Gathered, including Ireland’s the Lost Brothers, French Tucsonan, Gabriel Naim Amor, and Spanish producer Fernando Vacas. French-Danish actress Anna Karina offers her charming, throaty voice to “Not the End of the World”—a jazz-infused duet, and Danish chanteuse, Kira Skov, complements the smoky, romantic “Presumptuous” with her dulcet vocals.
Closer to home, Gelb’s daughter, Talula, makes an appearance on the album, crooning a delightful version of “Moon River”. Her youthful vocals have a lush resonance that suggests the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree. “Gathered”—a heartfelt and intimate tune with delicate backing vocals by folk singer, Pieta Brown—was written for the son of Gelb’s late bandmate and close friend, Rainer Ptacek. The warmth and sage advice Gelb offers in the nuptial ode reveals an emotional depth that warrants the song as the title track.
Aside from all the noteworthy vocals embellishing the album, two of the most standout tracks are strictly instrumental. “Anna” is a sumptuous, piano-driven piece and “The Open Road”—a surf-guitar frolic—calls to mind Gelb’s home in Tucson with its wide skies and seemingly endless roads. If Gelb hasn’t already written a film soundtrack, the songs suggest it might be something he should consider.
From the swanky sway of “All You Need to Know” to the creepy late-night tale of “The Park at Dark” and the quiet and affecting “Storyteller”, Gathered is a lovely collection of songs that offers sonic variety, wit, wisdom and intimate moments seemingly issued straight from the heart.