Back in 2010 Fire Records began marking the 25th anniversary of Howe Gelb’s legendary alternative country band Giant Sand by re-issuing the bulk of their back catalogue. Since then each of their 16 albums between 1985 and 2004 have been released, with the task finally completed at the end of 2011 with the release of Backyard BBQ Broadcast (1994), Cover Magazine (2002) and Is All Over the Map (2004).
Looking back over this collection it is striking how eclectic Tucson, Arizona, based Giant Sand have been, from classic rock, to country, to punk to jazz and bar room blues. There’s even been a bit of trip hop at times.
But whatever genre is covered one reassuring constant has been the presence of the band’s founder, songwriter and singer Howe Gelb with his distinct American drawl, world view of music and humour.
Even though Giant Sand is undoubtedly Gelb’s band only a fool would belittle the influence of those members that have come and gone. Among the act’s best work was with its classic, long running line up of bassist indie rhythm section for hire Joey Burns and Drummer John Convertino. They left after Chore of Enchantment to focus on their increasingly successful other project Calexico. The pair’s huge influence over the band is not in doubt. Gelb is also clearly influenced by his many collaborators, from Pj Harvey to his friend and slide guitar maestro Rainer Ptacek, who was a member of Helb’s post punk band that predated Giant Sand, called Giant Sandworms. Ptacek tragically died of brain cancer in 1997.
With 16 albums to plough through I’m not going to spend reams of text analysing each one. Instead I’ll pick out some of my highlights and those that could perhaps be required buying for a wide audience taking in Giant Sand completists to those with only a passing knowledge of the band. Fire Records are also planning to start a new reissue project focusing on Gelb’s six solo albums in 2012, something we will keep you updated about.
Chore of Enchantment (2000)
This is a fine entry point to Giant Sand, containing its most commercially pleasing tracks, although it was vilified for being too alternative by the band’s record label at the time. Shiver in particular is a standout not just on this album, but across all 16 albums. It is also the best value of the reissues, giving you much more bang for your buck with the addition of an extra CD, called The Rock Opera Years that is made up of demo versions and other tracks from the time.
There’s a sadness surrounding the album. It was to be the last featuring the classic Giant Sand line up of Burns and Convertino. It also followed the death of Ptacek, something that deeply effected Gelb, who handed much of the mixing and producing duties over to John Parish, the Bristol based producer behind much of PJ Harvey’s best work. Ptacek’s presence is across the album and his beautiful slide appears on track 16, Shrine. Parish’s influence also makes this such a treat, mixing styles and even some of his local Bristol trip hop experimentation.
The Love Songs (1988)
This fourth Giant Sand album is arguably where they found their sound. At times the previous three releases sounded a little too similar to other bands of the time. Debut Valley of Rain for example has Gelb’s unmistakable voice, but also generic chorus effect on guitar, which pretty much every alternative rock band had at the time. The Love Songs, featuring the classic line up of Burns and Convertino, as well as Gelb’s then wife and former bassist with The Go-Gos Paula Jean Brown, certainly has one of the strongest collection of songs.
The explosive rock of Mountain of Love and the wah-wah peddle drenched Love Like A Train are among many highlights. There’s some great covers on here as well, such as Peggy Lee’s Is That All There Is? and a bonus track of the band’s bizarre Run DMC-ish version of Smokey Robinson’s Get Ready. As with Chore of Enchantment part of The Love Songs’ charm is the breadth of styles, with Almost The Politician’s Wife’s acoustic guitar blues and keyboards from Green on Red’s Chris Cacavas perfectly augmenting the album’s more traditional rock and crazier moments. For very good reason The Love Songs was named in our Top 100 Indie and Alternative Music Albums list.
Centre of the Universe (1992)
Centre of the universe is one of Howe Gelb’s favourite Giant Sand albums. It’s probably my favourite of the 16. The album, which was written in a one-room, desert cabin near Joshua Tree and recorded in Venice, California, holds a special place in his heart as it marked the “last time I could work like this, before the advent of family life was to take over and populate the day…this record marks the final time of isolation with a happy careless abandon and an immediate urgency delivered by a wired up acoustic guitar with stomp box distortion ready and willing”.
For me its so good because its unmistakable Giant Sand laced with the grunge influences of the day, from Nirvana to Superchunk to The Lemonheads, and features sumptuous backing vocals from The Psycho Sisters – backing vocalists for hire at the time made up of former Bangle Vicki Peterson and Susan Cowsill. It’s a great combination with their backing vocals on tracks such as Loretta and the Insect World elevating what is already a fantastic alternative country album to a new level. The classic line up features here as well, as Gelb’s distorted guitar blends perfectly with Convertino’s drumming, Burns’ double bass and Giant Sand regular Chris Cacavas’s organ. The reissue features a remastering that Gelb is particularly impressed with for the added oomph it gives to The Psycho Sisters’s contribution, which he describes as “more vibrant and alluring.”
Is All Over The Map (2004)
When Burns and Convertino left Giant sand in 2000 to focus full time on Calexico the future of the band looked in doubt. Gelb meandered for a few years, released an interesting covers album under the Giant Sand name called Cover Magazine in 2002 and a year or so later found himself in Denmark scouting for musicians for a solo record. Turns out that those he found were more than just a backing band with Gelb signing up slide mandolin player and guitarist Anders Pederson, bassist Thoger T Lund and drummer Peter Deombernowsky to become the core Giant Sand line up that remains to this day.
John Parish was brought back in to produce and the result is classic Giant Sand, a range of styles, a warmth, great backing vocals and some fine tunes. Among those contributing were the late Vic Chesnutt, Henriette Sennenval and Marie Frank on backing vocals. Gelb’s daughter, who was 16 at the time, also gets a turn on a very wild west version of Anarchy in the UK. Gelb says that opener Classico is the only “real song”. He’s wrong of course, as the frantic Remote, the beautiful Cracklin Water and the Lou Reed-esque NYC of Time are all great songs as well. With Gelb even singing in French on Les Forcats Innocents and locations across Europe getting a mention Gelb’s world view of music was formalised with this release. Those that liked Centre of the Universe are likely to adore this album.
by Joe Lepper