splendid > reviews > 11/10/2004
Giant Sand
Giant Sand
Is All Over...the Map
Thrill Jockey

Format Reviewed: CD

Soundclip: "NYC of Time"

Buy me now
Some music resonates inside you the instant you hear it. It's the lovely, honest stuff that becomes a part of you at some crucial point in your life -- after a breakup or during a rite of passage -- and never leaves that little compartment that it forged in your soul. Or maybe the music hits you at the right time of day, breathing alongside whatever sunset, toe-pointing kiss or first cup of organic espresso makes you most receptive. And then you have music that fills your whole being with these feelings, even if you're sitting in your miserable cubicle for nine hours a day.

Howe Gelb's work does that.

In case you're unfamiliar with Gelb's work as Giant Sand (featuring previous collaborations with Neko Case, Victoria Williams, members of Grandaddy, Joey Burns and John Convertino, who went on to form Calexico), he has enjoyed a twenty year, twenty-seven release career, touring with everyone from the Cramps to PJ Harvey. Is All Over...the Map features a supergroup made up of legends such as John Parish on drums, mellotron and producing duties, newish guy Anders Pedersen on lap steel, guitar and "electric slide mandolin", and guest vocals by the likes of Vic Chesnutt. The ensemble creates a rich texture of elegant trash, conjuring images of tumbleweeds and ghost towns whose thousand stories are just waiting to be told -- that's Gelb's Tucson roots and home studio showing through. Drums clack and thump into vintage mics (enough to make Steve Albini blush); Gelb's 1888 piano shakes and creaks under the master's gentle hand (eerily sounding Henry Cowellesque on "Drab"); frets and strings buzz, and howling tube amp feedback rattles the studio windows like a passing ghost train.

The band's dynamic resembles the greats: Crazyhorse, classic Heartbreakers, vintage Eagles and The Flying Burrito Brothers ain't got nothin' on Giant Sand. Gelb and Pederson's guitar work often spices the folksy Americana/stoner California songs with doses of Kevin Shields and Hendrix at their noisiest, soothing the deal with Gelb's wife Sofie's innocent vocals (see "NYC of Time" and the Frenchtangoflamenco of "Les forcats innocents"). They work the gamut, from the heart-wrenching weeper "Classico" to a grizzled medley of "Anarchy in the UK" and Willie Nelson ("Anarchistic Bolshevistic Cowboy Bundle"), with daughter Patsy Gelb swinging the Lydon side 'til dad laments, "Mama, don't let your babies grow up to be Tolstoys". Ha!

However, as perfect a brew as this is, it's Gelb's voice and lyrics that push the music into otherworldly territories. His shaky timbre -- channelling Tom Waits, Lou Reed in his later days, Neil Young and Nick Drake -- has its way with you, whether it calms your nerves, sweeps over you with euphoric afterglow or simply reduces you to tears. "You find a girl, and she means all the world / and you lose your heart and it's back to the start / that's just the way it goes / when it's so...classico," Gelb offers. His voice is carefully restrained; he and the band are whispering to lure you in -- and once you're hooked, squealing feedback deadens your left ear ("Classico"). On "Crackling Water", he whispers his message into the wind (from his porch?), sounding desperate, spiteful, shamanic and prophetic as he pivots, comparing the "crackling water, crackling light and the cracking clouds, and the crackling night" to the strain of a rocky relationship. He plays the role of sensitive mountain man: "When the weather turns warm / and the wind's fully formed / I return with all the grey I've earned / and my heart not fully formed / I hate you now, this is not love." Bonus points for his use of the word "over-underestimate". Gelb's 47 years of tough living are exposed by his cautionary moral on "Miss", something we should all be taught at age five: "Paradise don't come without mistakes."

In an interview, Gelb once talked about purchasing the town of Rice, a deserted two-building shanty next to Joshua Tree that was going for a few grand. His idea was to name it Giant Sand, "Because bands are like little towns. You just gotta pick the spot where it feels right." This is a fitting metaphor for the group: Is All Over...the Map serves as the town hall, with Gelb and Parrish as mayor and deputy, respectively. Howe, if you're a little short on cash but you promise to continue your lovely art, I'll start the pledge drive with the first $100.



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