Howe Gelb
  • Jane Mingay
  • Howe Gelb

Next month Fire Records is releasing Little Sand Box, a sprawling eight-CD box set collecting the solo output of Giant Sand visionary Howe Gelb—six commercially issued albums, a live effort, and a previously unissued disc of piano pieces. Both on his own and with Giant Sand, Gelb has always been a little erratic, but that’s partly due to an unfettered adventurousness and desire to avoid repeating himself. He’s more than succeeded on that point, expanding the wheezing desert rock he first pioneered when Giant Sand formed in LA into a wonderfully lopsided, ramshackle vision of American music in all of its bastard glory. I’ve always admired those qualities in him, but in recent years it caused me to stop following his work as closely as I used to. There are only so many hours in a day.

I have most of the records in the set—which will be appended by bonus tracks—so probably won’t be picking it up, especially when one of the lures is a disc of piano music. To my ears, when Gelb sits at the piano it’s time to go. But checking out the track “Blue Marble Girl,” originally released on the 2001 solo effort Confluence—one of three he made for Thrill Jockey Records—is a potent reminder of just how absorbing his music can be when the rambling excesses and rudderless spontaneity are curbed. Check it out for yourself below.

What’s even more exciting is that Gelb’s new solo record The Coincidentalist (New West) provides another potent reminder of those things—as his music career nears 30 years, it’s remarkable that this latest release stands with anything he’s created during all that time. The record was cut with a strong band that included Steve Shelley on drums, M. Ward on guitar, and guest cameos from Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Andrew Bird, Jon Rauhouse, and KT Tunstall (her lovely voice actually sounds nice when she’s not using it on her own boring records). The three women who make up the Silver Thread Trio (Gabrielle Pietrangelo, Laura Kepner-Adney, and Caroline Isaacs) are also a huge help, providing a focus and sweetness to balance those moments when Gelb drifts into a spoken world wilderness. As he observes on “Unforgivable,” a paean to openness (both environmental and creative), “Restriction can be so negative / Your conviction don’t seem so positive.” Indeed, song after song follows circuitous paths.

Always fond of wordplay—no matter how head-scratching it might be—Gelb opens the album with a kind of sleepy anthem for his own twisted logic: in “Vortexas” he might be singing about an alternate universe that contains Tucson or a state of mind that leads into a void. A literal answer isn’t provided, but by the time Bonnie “Prince” Billy joins in for the second verse it hardly matters. “Left of Center,” another tune with a seemingly autobiographical title, is what it sounds like when Gelb tries to write an old-school soul song (check it out below), while “The 3 Deaths of Lucky,” with Tunstall, feels like an English-language duet between Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin transplanted to the wide-open expanses of the southwest, kissed by pedal steel.

Gelb performs twice Friday night at the Old Town School on a double bill with Jim White. He will accompany himself on piano and guitar, and get support from current Giant Sand bassist Thøger Tetens Lund (who also plays on The Coincidentalist) and guitarist Gabriel Sullivan.

Today’s playlist:

Anthea Caddy & Thembi Soddell, Host (Room 40)
Don Friedman, Metamorphosis (Prestige/OJC)
Flat Earth Society, Cheer Me, Perverts! (Crammed Discs)
Emeralds, Just to Feel Anything (Editions Mego)
Earl Howard, Granular Modality (New World)