By Christopher Hollow.
The glorious deserts of the American south-west conjure images of roadrunners, rattlesnakes, painted canyons and the sound of Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb.
It’s true, Howe Gelb is a butte ambassador – the fractured voice of the Arizona desert.
It’s been 30 years since Giant Sand’s 1985 debut, Valley of Rain, but, the big question is, what kind of listener has followed Gelb’s band through all its inceptions? The dozens of albums, the whims, the fancies, quirks, false-fronts, ghost-towns and rabbit-holes of output?
The answer is … an incredibly intrepid one.
If you’re looking for a map of modern Weird America, Howe Gelb is your cartographer – albeit a wilfully erratic one. The landscape has rivers recorded as dusty roads, restaurants as mountains and canyons as heartbreak.
Heartbreak Pass, the album that celebrates 30 years of Giant Sand, manages to show off all the best of the band – a ramshackle charm, some crazy sonic left-turns and all kinds of artists drifting in-and-out of its orbit [This record is co-produced by KT Tunstall and Guardian/Mojo music scribe Sylvie Simmons and features contributions by Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley, Grant Lee Phillips and Gelb’s daughter, Indiosa].
The album opener, “Heaventually”, draws you in with its gentle whisper in the shell pink. “Are you frantic? Or a romantic?” Gelb inquires softly. “All you gotta do is cross the Atlantic. Are you drastic? Is it all fantastic?” Italian singer Vinicio Capossela pops in for the kinda heartworn monologue usually found in doo wop numbers.
Hints of splintered sonics punctuate lead single, “Transponder”, a spacey synth collaboration with Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle. “Hurtin’ Habit” is a rollicking shuffle with a great Sonic Youth Steve Shelley floor-tom beat and harmony singing from Cherie Cherie’s Lonna Beth Kelley.
The record moves into a more Americana feel with the mariachi trumpets of “Every Now and Then” [recalling the sound of Calexico, a band originally made up of Giant Sand’s former rhythm section]and the humorous “Song So Wrong”.
Gelb has hinted that the record is split affair. “There are three volumes here representing living two lives for 30 years,” he explains, before adding: “Don’t do the math. It doesn’t figure.”
The final third of the record is the strangest – quieter and more ruminative [Fame is fleeting,’ he sings in ‘Gypsy Candle’, ‘Although at times it’s hard to tell’]. “House in Order” plays out like a grim threat. The duet “Pen to Paper” is pitched somewhere similar to Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell’s work together. The piano-led instrumental “Bitter Suite” recalls the great Charlie Brown soundtracks of Vince Guaraldi.
The most affecting track is the finale, “Forever and Always”, a rough/sweet duet with his teenage daughter.
If you’ve never heard, or been timid in your approach to Giant Sand, Heartbreak Pass is as good an entry point as any from the last 30 years. Once hooked, it’ll be tough to not starting working backwards from there. Still, best to have a trusty map on hand.