Every writer of dusty Western laments has a few items on his or her bucket list. If you are Howe Gelb, of the long-running Arizona-based Giant Sand, recording an expansive country-rock opera was on it. Or perhaps, after nearly 30 years of making records, it was the only thing left to do?
Gelb, who has settled on a band of well-versed-in-Americana Danes after seeing one his previous casts of musicians depart to a career as Calexico, widens the line-up on Tucson, welcoming a string section, brass, and more Tucson-area musicians into the fold. This is mutant country western where pedal steel and a Nashville shuffle on the snare maintain a trad feel, while everything else is more than slightly tweaked.
The name of this expanded version of Giant Sand refers to the expanded line-up that graces the fully fleshed-out recordings, but it should refer to the ambition of this massive collection of tunes, which ranges from Gelb’s trippy, sun-baked musings to perfectly honed takes on vintage styles. The opera loosely tells the tale of a man leaving his hometown and finding trouble and love on the Western trails. It’s just an excuse for Gelb to cast some magic over shuffling drums, C&W guitar and strings, and jazzy piano. But the narrative threaded through the collection of tunes never calls much attention to itself. It does, however, feature bit parts played well by the likes of smokey chanteuse Lonna Kelley, who proves a great foil to the forlorn-sounding Gelb, and pedal-steel maven Maggie Björklund, whose solo release last year was another star-studded affair.
It ranges from the spectacular drama of “Love Comes Over You” to the Chet Baker-esque cool jazz of “Not the End of the World” to the rollicking Spanish rhythms on “Cranito.” Gelb also lays down some sparse mini-ditties like “New River,” which closes out the album, and the blues-a-delic “Have I Been Wrong.” The strange and dusty tunes (“Hard Morning in a Soft Blur”) are par for the course with GS. But Tucson benefits from a variety that vaguely mimics a good musical or film. The beatnik jazz pop of “Ready or Not” and the jangling country rock of ”We Don’t Play Tonight” cover massive territory with a casual, thrown-off mastery.
For years, you could have (weakly) described Giant Sand as The Flaming Lips if it had gotten into Western swing and mariachi music, but the band’s albums could be more of a chore than a pop trip at times. Tucson, for as grandiose as it sounds on paper, is actually a sunny breeze as a long player. Closing out decade three for Giant Sand, it seems to say something about the upside of surviving. Maybe that it gets easier?