Giant Sand: A Mutable Southwestern-Rock Institution

Giant Sand: proVISIONSGiant Sand: proVISIONS (Yep Roc, 9/2/08)

Giant Sand: “Increment of Love”

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Howe Gelb calls himself “a lifer.” As the circus troupers of the golden age would’ve said, he’s “with it and for it.” A crackling muse exists at his core, and, as he puts it, he “simply tries to stay out of its way when it’s coming out.”

Gelb has used a revolving-door cast of hugely gifted, improvisational musicians in the Tucson, Arizona collective Giant Sand as his most consistent conduit for more than 25 years. In addition to the group’s 15-album catalog, he’s released numerous albums under his own name, as The Band of Blacky Ranchette, as Arizona Amp & Alternator, and with OP8, his project with Lisa Germano. He’s collaborated with Neko Case, Richard Buckner, and M. Ward, among many others. Giant Sand’s formidable roster of players has formed such celebrated bands as Calexico and The Friends of Dean Martinez.

The Giant Sand of 1985, on Valley of Rain, played hefty, lyrically intelligent alt-rock songs laced with the dusty scent of the Southwest. With myriad lineup changes, the death of longtime friend and collaborator Rainer Ptacek, and the passing of time, the desert has taken over. The Giant Sand of today makes music conjured out of the sun-cracked, two-lane highways and sleepy service stations of the American desert itself, thick with the acrid smoke of a recently snuffed campfire.

“After you hit the half-century mark, you make sure every album and every show is played like it might be your last. You make sure everything counts.”

Gelb slowly works away at an album, none too concerned about when it’s finished but aware of what it will feel like when he’s done. He often works two to three years ahead, recording songs as he sees fit, many made up on the spot at the recording studio with “nothing more than a handful of lyrics, thoughts, or chords.” When he’s amassed enough songs with the same overall flavor, he gathers them up, carefully arranges them, and puts them on record. There’s no good way to explain the process; it’s an instinct that has leeched itself into his gut.

ProVISIONS, released in September 2008 on Yep Roc Records, is the first Giant Sand album in four years. Though Is All Over the Map (2004) lived up to its name as a shambling mixed bag of sounds and experimental, stream-of-consciousness whims, proVISIONS picks up where the beautiful Chore of Enchantment left off in 2000. It’s a fluid, cinematic oasis that would feel equally as comfortable weaving in and out of a Sergio Leone western as it would creaking out of the speakers of a rusted pickup truck.

The songs here feel broken in; there’s plenty of room to get out and stretch your legs. With Case’s plaintive backing vocals and the cocktail-lounge shuffle of “Without a Word,” the slow-moving, introspective piano ballad “Desperate Kingdom of Love,” and the epic, shape-shifting, rhythmic punch of “The New Romance of Falling,” it’s clear that this is an album created by musicians’ musicians (“lifers”), who know how to read each other’s subtle gestures with unconscious ease.

“After you hit the half-century mark, you make sure every album and every show is played like it might be your last,” Gelb says. “You make sure everything counts.” That’s a lifer for you.

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