Giant Sand has gradually but inexorably morphed into "Howe Gelb and Calexico or whoever happens to be around the studio", and that seems to be a pretty good thing. Sometimes a truly singular vision can be compromised in the give-and-take of a band partnership. When a musician with Gelb's abilities elects to do a covers album, it tends to highlight how much is lost through contemporary music's unwillingness to reinterpret its finest products. At one time, the idea of a "cover" album would have seemed absurd; famous musicians played the songs that others wrote for them, and those songs were considered entities apart from a given interpretation. The blossoming of musician/songwriters over the past thirty years or so has drawn attention toward songwriting and away from interpretation. This has saved us any number of Pat Boone-style atrocities, but has also relegated a major art form to the unfashionable end of the rock and roll world. Thankfully, Neko Case (among others) has made chanteusery hip again, at least in country circles. With Cover Magazine
, Gelb has gone a long way toward salvaging the name of the rock and roll cover album --, a name many had thought eternally linked to The Spaghetti Incident
Great songwriters are inevitably great music consumers, and Gelb has chosen his material with taste -- and with an ear for songs that lend themselves to reinterpretation. For every obvious call ("King of the Road" gets a fairly straightforward reading, proving once again that it is one of the world's finest tunes), he throws a big, risky curveball. No one who hasn't read the track listing could possibly imagine that the semi-samba beat and accompanying piano riff in the third song would lead into Black Sabbath's "Iron Man".
Gelb also proves himself quite adept at creating medleys of popular tunes: Marty Robbins' "El Paso" segues beautifully into Neil Young's "Out On The Weekend", while Johnny Cash's "Wayfaring Stranger" and "Fly Me To The Moon" sound like they were made for each other. The record yields other interesting combinations, too: Polly Jean Harvey lends her wail to Gelb's cover of X's "Johnny Hit and Run Pauline", and Gelb returns the favor with a great, slinky reading of Ms. PJ's "Plants and Rags". The Divine Miss Case and Kelly Hogan lend their dulcet tones to the "Wayfaring Stranger" medley. The most eclectic choice amongst a string of them is the two versions of Sonny Bono's "The Beat Goes On". Yes, you read that correctly. No, I don't know why he did it.
This is a welcome addition to the Giant Sand corpus, and an impressive demonstration of the continuing relevance of the band, more than two decades into its existence.