Giant SAnd
(Copyright © 1999 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
Valley Of Rain , 6.5/10
The Band of Blacky Ranchette , 4/10
Heartland , 5/10
Ballad Of A Thin Line Man, 6.5/10
Storm , 7/10
Love Songs , 6.5/10
Long Stem Rant , 5/10
Sage Advice , 4/10
Swerve , 7/10
Ramp , 6/10
Howe Gelb: Dreaded Brown Recluse, 6/10
Center Of The Universe , 5/10
Purge & Slouch , 6/10
Glum, 6/10
Backyard Barbecue Broadcast, 7/10
Official Bootleg Series Vol One, 6/10
Goods And Services, 5/10
OP8: Slush , 6/10
Howe Gelb: Hisser, 6/10
Chore Of Enchantment, 6.5/10
Rock Opera, 6/10
Howe Gelb: Confluence, 5/10
Howe Gelb: Lull Some Piano , 5/10
Howe Gelb: Down Home , 4/10
Cover Magazine , 4/10
Band of Blacky Ranchette: The Band of Blacky Ranchette (New Rose, 1985), 4/10
Band of Blacky Ranchette: Heartland (Zippo, 1986), 4/10
Band of Blacky Ranchette: Sage Advice (Demon, 1990), 4/10
Band of Blacky Ranchette: Still Lookin' Good To Me (2003), 4/10
Howe Gelb: Listener (2003), 4/10
Is All Over The Map (2004) , 6/10
Howe Gelb: 'Sno Angel Like You (2006), 6/10
Giant Sand: Provisions (2008), 4/10
Giant Sand: Blurry Blue Mountain (2010), 5/10
Howe Gelb: Alegrias (2011), 4/10
Links:

In Arizona, Howe Gelb, the brain behind Giant Sand, came up with an original and quirky fusion of rock, country and psychedelia. Not so much prolific as unfocused, Gelb too wasted his talent over a dreadful number of mediocre recordings. Valley Of Rain (1985) sounded like a chaotic quotations of Neil Young and Dream Syndicate. Ballad Of A Thin Line Man (1986) exhibited the epic/doomed tones of Lou Reed and Johnny Thunders. Storm (1988), possibly the best work of his early phase, composed a post-modernist puzzle of rural ambience by liberating elements of red-neck roots-rock (gospel, soul, boogie, blues, country) from their sonic habitat. Love Songs (1988), enhanced by ex-Green On Red organist Chris Cacavas, continued to blend country, blues and psychedelia, but using a more linear and organic format, which, not surprisingly, evoked the Band and, even less surprisingly, Green On Red. Swerve (1990) marked perhaps the zenith of this art of abstraction. Another turning point, Ramp (1991), featuring the rhythm section of bassist Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino (the future Calexico line-up), suddenly opted for Neil Young's abrasive country-rock. Giant Sand's masterpiece may well be the 25-minute jam BBQ Suite, off the largely improvised Backyard Barbecue Broadcast (1995), which stands as a summary of Gelb's nebulous vision up to this point. Gelb later mustered enough consciousness to craft Chore Of Enchantment (1999), one of his tighter and more focused works, and probably the most personal and touching of Gelb's "adult" phase.
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La saga di Howe Gelb (nativo della Pennsylvania) inizia a Tucson, in Arizona, alla fine degli anni '70, quando e` alla testa dei Giant Sandworms, con i quali incidera` il singolo An Evening At Wildcat House. La prima registrazione a suo nome e` la cassetta Incidental Music (1983). Il vero esordio discografico di Gelb fu Valley Of Rain (Enigma, 1985), accreditato ai Giant Sand. Al suo fianco ci sono un bassista e un batterista, ma le musiche e i testi sono suoi. Il disco esce nel periodo in cui i Green On Red stanno guidando il movimento revisionista del Sud. Gelb ne e` influenzato nel piglio psichedelico della chitarra, ma si ispira piu` palesemente al vecchio southern-rock (Man Of Want) e a Neil Young (Valley Of Rain). Il suo forte sono soprattutto le storie, nella tradizione di Steve Wynn (Curse Of A Thousand Flames).

Gelb e` intanto coinvolto anche nella Band of Blacky Ranchette, un combo con cui sfoga la sua passione per il country di Hank Williams e Jimmie Rodgers. The Band of Blacky Ranchette (New Rose, 1985) e` anche troppo fedele agli originali, mentre gli album successivi annoverano qualche canzone nello stile maggiore: Moon Over Memphis e Roof's On Fire su Heartland (Zippo, 1986), e il Wild Dog Waltz. Sage Advice (Demon, 1990).

Il secondo album dei Giant Sand, Ballad Of A Thin Line Man (Zippo, 1986), compie un prodigioso passo in avanti, rivelando un sound davvero unico, influenzato in egual misura dai cantautori decadenti (Lou Reed, Johnny Thunders) e dal rock psichedelico. Accanto a ballate atmosferiche nella vena del primo disco (Thin Line Man) si fanno largo esperimenti sempre piu` eccentrici (Last Legs). Alla chitarra c'e` Paula Jean Brown, ex Go-Go's, destinata a diventare sua moglie.

Il formato di Storm (What Goes On, 1988) e` quello della musica di consumo: ordine e arrangiamento subentrano a estro e lo-fi. Ma il Gelb che scorrazza sornione nel ruvido garage-rock di Bigger Than That e nel boogie sarcastico di Town Where No Town Belongs e Big Rock (canzoni anche troppo "normali") e` soltanto il pretesto per mettere in scena alcune delle sue vignette piu` intense, che suonano anche come omaggi alle sue radici: il forte honkytonk di Three 6ixes, l'elegia country di The Replacement, e soprattutto l'epica ballata Uneven Light Of Day, sorta di personale testamento filosofico. Il milieu della provincia piccolo borghese ha trovato il suo Omero.

Love Songs (Homestead, 1988) prosegue sostanzialmente lungo quella traccia, alternando canzoni robuste nella tradizione "red neck" come Love Like A Train e Mountain of Love a bizzarre interpretazioni della tradizione country (Wearing The Robes Of Bible Black, Fingernail Moon). La differenza e` che questa volta al suo fianco c'e` un tastierista come Chris Cacavas (ex Green On Red), che introduce un forte elemento gospel e soul. Ne risulta un matrimonio improbabile fra il piglio sciamanico di Nick Cave e il feeling "domestico" della Band (One Man's Woman).

Giant Sandwich (Homestead, 1989) raccoglie rarita` e inediti.

Long Stem Rant (Homestead, 1989) venne praticamente improvvisato con il batterista John Convertino durante un weekend nel deserto. Il caos regna sovrano, ma almeno Get to Leave, l'amara Loving Cup e la lunga jam Paved Road To Berlin vanno inserite nel suo canzoniere maggiore.

Fu l'inizio di una lunga serie di album in cui l'umore del momento conta piu` della composizione a tavolino. I dischi successivi saranno quasi tutti costruiti alla stessa maniera, fidando fin troppo sulla capacita` dei musicisti di improvvisare buone canzoni una volta riuniti nello stesso luogo. Ciascun disco sara` piu` che altro una fotografia psicologica dell'umore del gruppo.

Cio` non toglie che il successivo Swerve (Amazing Black Sand, 1990), forte dell'aiuto di Juliana Hatfield, di Steve Wynn e dei Poi Dog Pondering, segni un apice creativo. Gelb riparte dal gospel e dal soul di Love Songs (1988), di cui anzi estremizza l'ibrido stilistico (country, blues, psichedelia, violini e fiati in dosi del tutto gratuite), Il risultato sono pezzi indefinibili come Brothers And Sisters, Angels At Night, Can't Find Love. Gelb e compagni sono in forma talmente buona che potrebbero trasformare qualsiasi cosa in una canzone.

Ramp (Amazing Black Sand, 1991), molto meno originale, mitiga il suo isolamento musicale con canzoni finalmente decifrabili come Romance Of Falling e Warm Storm (in repertorio dal 1987). Joey Burns e` subentrato al basso.

Da Seeded a Milkshake Girl passando per Sonic Drive In, anche Center Of The Universe (Restless, 1993) tenta vanamente di arginare l'esecuzione caotica che e` il marchio di fabbrica dell'autore; ma il talento di Gelb e` una forza grezza e istintiva, e tocca nuovi vertici di follia nella title-track e soprattutto in Loretta And The Insect World. A tratti l'album sembra pero` arrendersi all'hard-rock radiofonico dell'epoca.

Idealmente, Swerve, Ramp e Center Of The Universe compongono una trilogia del "deserto", ma in realta` sono completamente diversi l'uno dall'altro.

L'album solista di Howe Gelb, Dreaded Brown Recluse (Amazing Black Sand, 1991), e` in realta` una raccolta di canzoni dei Giant Sand rivedute e corrette.

Il successivo Purge & Slouch (Amazing Black Sand, 1993) si avvale, oltre che dei fidi Joey Burns e John Convertino, di ospiti come Susan Cowsill e Vicki Peterson (ex Bangles). Gelb "purga" di nuovo il disco di molti eccessi (una jam di tredici minuti che compariva nel nastro promozionale) e punta invece su ballate country come Bender e su filastrocche polemiche come Elevator Music e Song For The Accountants. Molte canzoni sembrano appena abbozzate, altre appartengono alla sua vena piu` allucinata (High Lonesome Curl). Il jamming prodigioso dell'ensemble nobilita il lungo blues di Smokey Joe's Deep Blue Pancakes e la novelty strumentale Santana Castaneda And You.

Dopo il live Stromausfall (Normal, 1993), Gelb approda al malinconico Glum (Imago, 1994), che in effetti e` suonato come se fosse anch'esso un live. Glum e Yer Ropes sono le canzoni meno caotiche.

Non a caso Backyard Barbecue Broadcast (Koch, 1995) e` di nuovo dal vivo.

The 25-minute BBQ Suite may well be Giant Sand's masterpiece. It starts out as a plaintive and a little apathetic rant over a subdued country & western cakewalk. During the first break, the piano delves into a drunken solo, then a tenuous harmonica signals to the rhythm to pick up speed. Hazy guitar chords open the second movement, a calmer, Hawaian wail with some blues strumming that mutates into a waltzing theme and into a Neil Young homily. After a short instrumental movement that parodies the 1960s, the fourth movement opens with a Beefheart-ian growl and a driving, sub-blues bottleneck solo. This leads to a surreal, mildly dissonant, jam session, the band relaxing in a deranged kind of trance, with instruments soaring and falling asleep according to no logic, the rhythm accelerating into an Indian pow-wow, and the singer uttering confused lyrics. It all sounds like it is enveloped in a sandstorm. The last movement resumes the sleepy, Hawaian tones of the second movement for an ending in a metaphysical tone. The vision is Gelb's, but it is Burns and Convertino that make it possible. They now rank among the most original musicians of their time.
Lean is another show of the band's epically demented cohesiveness and of the leader's tortured singing. Psychedelic excesses are kept at bay by a sense of purpose and become part of a larger picture rather than being the raison d'etre of the music.
Get To Leave and Mope-A-Long are more traditional-sounding country ballads, but also the main vehicles for Gelb's soul to vent its holy gospel.

Goods And Services (Enemy, 1996) continua su quella falsariga.

John Convertino e Joey Burns partecipano nel 1995 ai Friends Of Nina Martinez e nel 1996 varano i Calexico.

Howie Gelb, comuffato dietro lo pseudonimo OP8 e accompagnato dalla solita sezione ritmica di John Convertino e Joey Burns fornisce il controcanto e l'accompagnamento a Lisa Germano per Slush (Thirsty Ear, 1998). Gelb pennella tre lunghe ballate oniriche, bisbigliate sottovoce (The Devil Loves LA, Crackling Water e Leather) e la jam strumentale jazzata OP8.

Il difetto principale di Gelb e` la prolissita`, che gli ha sempre impedito di concepire un album che fosse veramente un capolavoro. I due album di Giant Songs (1989 e 1995) bastano forse a riassumere la sua carriera.

Accanto ai Green On Red e ai Thin White Rope, Gelb ha dato il suo contributo a definire un suono fatto di allucinazioni sonore, un rock del deserto. Nella sua musica, pero`, rivivono soprattutto i miraggi e le allucinazioni dovuti all'isolamento, alle paure e agli sconforti della gente comune che e` cresciuta ai margini dei centri urbani.

1999 brings both a new solo album by Howard Gelb, Hisser (V2, 1999), whose cast includes the whole Giant Sand tribe (including ex wife Brown and new wife Sofie Albertsen) and whose standout tracks Door Maverick and Temptation Of Egg sound more pensive than anything he had ever done before (sort of his Nebraska or Tonight's The Night), and a new Giant Sand album, Chore Of Enchantment, rejected by the record label and made available over the Internet.

In the meantime Gelb had inaugurated the four-volume Official Bootleg Series (Epiphany, 1996-2003).

Nel 1999 escono tanto un nuovo album solista di Howard Gelb, Hisser (V2, 1999), a cui collabora tutta la tribu` (compresa la ex moglie Brown e la nuova moglie Sofie Albertsen) e sul quale brillano Door Maverick e Temptation Of Egg, quanto un nuovo album dei Giant Sand, Chore Of Enchantment, rifiutato dalla casa discografica e disponibile soltanto su Internet.
Chore Of Enchantment (Ow Om, 1999 - Thrill Jockey, 2000) is one of his best ever. With several of these songs Gelb gives the best interpretations of his life: on Dusted he achieves the angelic and melancholy intensity of a Leonard Cohen, on Punishing Sun he sounds like Jim Croce or John Denver fronting Morphine, on the slow waltz of Astonished he plays a mature, romantic "chansonnier". A masterpiece of delivery is Raw, first sadly subdued and then gaily confident. The emotional peak comes with Bottom Line Man, a touching piano ballad reminiscent of early Billy Joel. First and foremost, this is a very personal work, which contrasts with his previous, eccentric, persona.
The Giant Sand are only a faint memory. Their trademark country of the desert resurfaces in Shiver. The soulful, slightly synchopated, keyboard-driven gospel-rock of the Band propels only the remake of his Temptation Of Egg.
Gelb's albums often suffer from too many detours that detract from the overall leitmotiv, a consequence of his irresistible urge for spontaneous invention over careful craft. On Enchantment, instead, very little is wasted and even the odd tracks somehow merge with the main philosophical path. The psychedelic blend of soul and reggae in X-Tra Wide and the blues shuffle hummed by a sleepwalking Tom Waits in Wolfy make for a fitting change of pace. At one point, Satellite even steals the show with seven minues of guitar distortions, pounding quasi-industrial boogie, and Lou Reed-style calm/psychotic reasoning.
Gelb is surrounded by family and friends (for a grand total of 20 guests), as if to summarize his career. It may not be his masterpiece, but Enchantment presents a much more focused author and a much more self-conscious composer.
Chore Of Enchantment (Ow Om, 1999 - Thrill Jockey, 2000) e` in realta` uno dei suoi capolavori. Con molte di queste canzoni Gelb scodella le migliori interpretazioni della sua carriera: in Dusted sfiora l'angelica malinconia di Leonard Cohen, in Punishing Sun sembrano che Jim Croce o John Denver canti con i Morphine, nel valzer lento di Astonished s'improvvisa maturo, romantico "chansonnier". Esemplare e` la recitazione di Raw, prima tristemente sottotono e poi gioiosamente sicura di se`. Il picco emotivo viene forse con Bottom Line Man, una toccante ballata pianistica reminescente del primo Billy Joel. Si tratta nel complesso di un lavoro molto personale, che contrasta con la sua personalita` eccentrica.
I Giant Sand sembrano soltanto un ricordo lontano. Il loro country del deserto fa capolino in Shiver. Il gospel-rock melodico, sincopato e guidato dall'organo della Band propelle soltanto Temptation Of Egg (gia` sull'album precedente, qui eseguita con Juliana Hatfield al controcanto).
Gli album di Gelb soffrono spesso di troppe divagazioni. Questa volta le divagazioni sono benvenute: la miscela psichedelica di soul e reggae in X-Tra Wide e il blues shuffle canticchiato da un Tom Waits assonnato in Wolfy fungono quasi da intermezzi fra un poema filosofico e l'altro. Satellite ruba persino la scena con sette minuti di distorsioni, cadenza boogie e tono laconico alla Lou Reed.
Gelb e` circondato da famiglia e amici (20 ospiti in tutto), come se volesse riassumere la sua carriera. Non sara` forse il suo capolavoro, ma Enchantment presenta un autore molto piu` concentrato.

A new Giant Sand album is out a few months later, Rock Opera (OW OM, 2000), and the style is the same. Despite the suspicion that these songs be the leftovers of Chore's sessions, the album succeeds at least in Rock Opera. Confluence (Thrill Jockey, 2001) is credited only to Howe Gelb. Gelb is progressively approaching the sound of Calexico in his solo works: sprawling mood pieces of lazy, hallucinated, desert-inspired acid-rock, mostly instrumental and discreetly arranged. While featuring pretty much the same personnel, this album is less consistent and focused (and serious) than Chores. The tracks can be divided in abstract soundpainting (3 Sisters, Slide Away), frequently derailed by surreal sonic detours, with a peak in Pontiac Slipstream; spare, spacey, bluesy ballads (Saint Conformity, Blue Marble Girl, Hard On Things), that seem to mine a supernatural world and occasionally decay in demented romps a` la Holy Modal Rounders (Pedal Steel And She'll); and cryptic, subliminal pieces (Available Space, Cold, Shadow Of Where A River Was) that hint to a truer truth. A zen monk who spent his life in the desert and got his brain completely burned out would sound like this Gelb.
The limit of the album is that it sounds, yet again, too improvised, too indulgent, too whimsical. Like most of his albums, with few exceptions (Ballad, Storm, Chores, Swerve).

Confluence (Thrill Jockey, 2001) e` accreditato soltanto a Howe Gelb. Gelb si sta progressivamente avvicinando al sound di Calexico nei suoi lavori da solista: destabilizzanti pezzi di acid-rock lenti, allucinati, di ispirazione desert, per lo piu' strumentali e arrangiati con cura. I pezzi possono essere suddivisi in pitture sonore astratte (3 Sisters, Pontiac Slipstream, Slide Away), spesso sviate da variazioni sonore surreali; libere, spaziose, malinconiche ballate (Saint Conformity, Blue Marble Girl, Hard On Things), che sembrano scavare un mondo soprannaturale e occasionalmente deteriorarsi in trambusti demenziali a` la Holy Modal Rounders (Pedal Steel And She'll); e pezzi strumentali criptici e subliminali (Cold, Shadow Of Where A River Was) che alludono a una verit… piu' vera. Un monaco zen che ha passato la vita nel deserto e si Š fuso il cervello avrebbe forme espressive analoghe a questo Gelb. Il problema e` che siamo tornati al caos e al pressapochismo che contraddistinguono gran parte della sua carriera.
Promoted from most under-rated alt-rock musician to most over-hyped alt-rock musician, Gelb is now releasing on CD whatever he has a chance to tape. Lull Some Piano (Ow Om, 2001) is a collection of solo-piano lullabies, and naturally they are played on out-of-tune pianos and framed by casual conversations. The project will be continued on Ogle Some Piano (Ow Om, 2004) and Spun Some Piano (2008), no less indulgent. Down Home (Ow Om, 2001) finds the same hero singing and strumming spare folk music that was probably recorded hardly a second after it was conceived. Gelb may have become a little too confident in his musical talent. Mozart he is not.

Giant Sand's Cover Magazine (Thrill Jockey, 2002) is a collection of covers.

The best track on Howe Gelb's Listener (Thrill Jockey, 2003) is also a piano instrumental, Glisten. The rest is disposable pop-blues ballads (Cowboy Boots), occasionally delivered by guest female vocalists (Torque).

The Band of Blacky Ranchette celebrated its 20th anniversary with Still Lookin' Good To Me (Thrill Jockey, 2003), featuring Neko Case, Cat Power, John Convertino, Joey Burns, Richard Buckner, M. Ward, Grandaddy's Jason Lytle, Lambchop's Kurt Wagner, etc. As usual, it takes a lot of patience to listen to the entire album.

Howe Gelb's Listener (Thrill Jockey, 2003) is the kind of music that any child can make, and perhaps with more imagination than this ageing hippy. The piano is still front stage, and the instrumental Glisten is a worthy addition to the canon of Lull. But, despite the occasional glimpse of music (B 4 U - Do Do Do), the sleepy parade of piano-based dejavus, from Felonious (reminiscent of the Velvet Underground's Sweet Jane) to Henrietta Sennenvaldt's misguided imitation of Bjork in Torque (Tango de la Tongue), does not qualify as anything but indulgence.

Helb replaced Joey Burns and John Convertino on Giant Sand's first album of original material in four years, Is All Over The Map (Thrill Jockey, 2004), with a whole new, and mostly Danish, line-up (guitarist Anders Pedersen, bassist Thoger Lund, drummer Peter Dombernowsky and multi-instrumentalist John Parish). The style is raucous and sloppy, pre-Chores, framed by the surreal Classico and the rambling folk elegy Hood. NYC of Time evokes the Grifters, while Remote and Flying Around the Sun at Remarkable Speed are prime Neil Young-ian hurricanes.

Gelb's 'Sno Angel Like You (Thrill Jockey, 2006) wed the singer's charismatic voice to a relatively humble gospel choir. The result was modestly entertaining, although hardly revolutionary. The best songs, starting with Get to Leave (a 17-year old song originally on Long Stem Rant, were not new.

Giant Sand's Provisions (2008), featuring a Danish quartet, is as tedious as its countless predecessors expect when Gelb is under the influence of someone else: Neko Case (Without a Word), Isobel Campbell (Stranded Pearl), M. Ward (Can Do) or PJ Harvey (who wrote The Desperate Kingdom of Love).

Blurry Blue Mountain (Fire, 2010), with the same Danish quartet and singer Lonna Kelley, boasts a couple of robust blues-rockers (Brand New Swamp Thing and Thin Line Man) and the seven-minute meditation Monk's Mountain, plus two old songs with new titles: Thin Line Man, that was titled Loving Cup on Ballad Of A Thin Man and Lucky Star Love, that was titled Blanket of Stars on Sage Advice and was in turn a reworking of Loving Cup from Long Stem Rant).

Alegrias (2011) was Gelb's flamenco album, recorded in Spain with flamenco musicians, and including new versions of some old songs of his.

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