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Howe Gelb – Little Sand Box Set

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Howe Gelb – Little Sand Box Set

Posted on 09 January 2014 by Joe

Howe Gelb appears somehow ill suited to a solo career. The Giant Sand frontman seems just too much of a sociable guy to go it alone and it’s no surprise to find that the best of this eight CD box set collection of Gelb’s solo work is not solo at all. Instead what emerges is one of the music industry’s best collaborators with an ability to skip merrily across notions of genre, particularly with the Voice of Praise Gospel Choir on this set’s highlight ‘Sno Angel Like You.


Even Dreaded Brown Recluse (1991), his first solo album, is created out of collaboration rather than a search for isolation. With tour promoters at the time concerned that Giant Sand’s already prolific output was diluting their ability to regularly pull in crowds Gelb hit upon the idea of releasing a solo album. That way tour promoters stayed happy and the band’s steady income from shows remained intact.

This album is also essentially a Giant Sand album in all but name, featuring its members John Convertino and Joey Burns and having the same eclectic Giant Sand mix of country, blues, punk, folk and jazz. As a collection it’s got an even looser feel than Giant Sand albums of the time, but there are still plenty of highlights interspersed in Gelb’s weaker flights of fancy.

The country twang of Picture Shows and the acoustic feel to Loretta and the Insect World sound great here and are among the best. Special mention goes to the full band feel of Warm Storm, another to add to the great Gelb cannon. But then there’s the grunge dirge of Actually Faxing Sophie and the weak Vienna 2-Step Throw Away, Vigdis and Blanket for Tina that bring down the quality and are among the more skippable moments.


Hisser (1998) feels a little more solo, recorded on a four track at his home while as a single parent. But band mates and friends pop by and add weight and company to the album’s low-key tracks when needed. In terms of song writing this also features some of Gelb’s finest works, especially 4 Door Maverick, which he later reused for the Alegrias album, but more of that later. This track is part of a fine run of acoustic guitar tracks early on in the album through to Propulsion that are a delight. Creeper is another highlight and features a pump organ that he picked up for $35 dollars. As with Dreaded Brown Recluse, Hisser takes a turn midway through into more eclectic, odder jazz piano territory. But if you are even reading this then you will more than likely be a Gelb fan already and fully versed in his genre skipping tendancies.


Confluence (2001) was born out of Giant Sand’s split, when the classic line up featuring Burns and Convertino moved on to form Calexico and “everything turned to shit” according to Gelb, via music journalist Sylvie Simmon’s notes that accompany this box set. Convertino and others still appear on the album but this has far more of a solo feel and I’m not sure Gelb is enjoying the experience one bit. In a word, this is depressing. Saint Conformity and 3 Sisters set the sombre tone for the whole album, which is the least appealing in this box set. Nevertheless it does contain one of my favourite Gelb songs among this whole set, Blue Marble Girl, featuring beautiful backing vocals from his second wife Sofie Albertsen Gelb.


Things look up for 2003’s The Listener. Gelb has reformed Giant Sand with musicians from Scandanavia and he’s happy as Larry. Gelb is in a good place and the music is upbeat and at times even silly. Mainly with a piano lounge singer feel to it he comes across as a kind of Lou Reed with a sense of humour. It feels a little like a vanity project, the only time his solo work veers into that territory, but at least he’s having fun and that’s a joy to hear on this album. Among the highlights are Felonius, Cowboy Boots and the dramatic shuffling tango of Torue (Tango De La Tongue), which just about makes up for the lack of a killer tune.


Three years later comes the key album in this collection, Sno Angel Like You, which is one of our Top 100 albums of all time. This 2006 album showcases an almighty partnership, with the Voices of Praise gospel choir, whose vocals breathing new life into old songs, such as Neon Filler, and on a whole bunch of new tracks just perfect for this spiritual feel. Gelb’s songwriting has always at its best been about subtlety, with the right turn of phrase or catchy chorus almost effortlessly slipped into his songs. Here those traits are given some rare bombast and its an uplifting experience that adds a whole new dimension to his music. A perfect match. The live album ‘Sno Angel Winging It (Live) is a nice addition to this box set as well, and was especially nice for me to hear as I managed to get to see Gelb and Voice of Praise perform this album at the time.


A few more Giant Sand albums and tours pass by but in 2011 he’s back on the solo trail again and involved in another sterling collaboration, this time with gypsy musicians from Spain. As with ‘Sno Angel the music on Alegrias is at its heart Americana but using the distinct sounds of his collaborators to Gelb’s advantage. Recorded largely in Cordoba, Spain, the entire album is wonderful thanks to the classy playing of guitarist Raimondo Amador. Among many highlights are Notoriety and Blood Orange, which feature backing vocals from Prin La La and Lonna Kelley respectively

To close the box set Some Piano, a collection of piano releases brought together in one CD, is included. This takes me a little out of my indie rock and Americana comfort zone. It’s essentially a series of jazz piano instrumentals and while a nice inclusion in showing the breadth of his talent and style its not one I’ll be listening to repeatedly.

There are two ways of approaching this box set for those wanting to hear more Gelb. One is to embrace his eclecticism and varying quality of his releases, just buy it and discover the wheat from the chaff for yourself. The other is to just get ‘Sno Angel Like You and Alegrias, the two standout albums in his back catalogue, and marvel at how his best solo work is not solo at all.


by Joe Lepper


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Giant Giant Sand – Tucson

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Giant Giant Sand – Tucson

Posted on 03 July 2012 by Joe

Clocking in at well over an hour and with 19 tracks Howe Gelb’s latest Giant Sand album, Tucson, is far too long and lacking in substance to be included among the best of the  band’s stellar back catalogue.

The album’s label as a ‘country rock opera’ starts the alarm bells ringing, as this low-key and lengthy release pays homage to Tucson, where Gelb has lived for the last four decades, and revolves around the life of “a semi-grizzled man with overt boyish naivete” according to the press release.

There are nice flourishes, such as the horns and slide guitar on Forever and a Day and the party atmosphere on Caranito, but on too many tracks there is a lack of the inventive, soulful music Gelb has become renowned for on his excellent recent solo albums, such as last year’s Howe Gelb and A Band Of Gypsies album Alegrías or the best of the Giant Sand back catalogue.

Calling the band Giant Giant Sand may seem like a nice twist as he has assembled a larger than usual line up, of Giant Sand’s regular Sandanavian contingent  as well the likes of Brian Lopez, Gabriel Sullivan and Jon Villa. However, this large group fail to give the songs life. Too many are lacklustre and there’s no killer single that all great Giant Sand albums have.

Tucson is a pleasant enough listen as background music but lacks the wow factor that Gelb usually excels at.


by Joe Lepper


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Giant Sand – The Fire Records Reissues

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Giant Sand – The Fire Records Reissues

Posted on 19 January 2012 by Joe

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


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Howe Gelb and a Band of Gypsies – Alegrías

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Howe Gelb and a Band of Gypsies – Alegrías

Posted on 06 June 2011 by Joe

Giant Sand frontman and solo artist Howe Gelb is now into his fifth decade of making music but his sense of creativity is far from drying up.

Arguably his output is as fresh now as when he started recording punk songs on a four track in the late 1970s. His global view of music helps and on his latest release he has spent the last two years visiting Spain to merge his unique brand of Americana with the region’s gypsy music.

As with Neonfiller Top 100 album Sno’ Angel Like you, in which he teamed up with Canada’s Voices of Praise gospel choir, the genre crossing on Alegrias works beautifully.

Respect is key to Gelb’s work with musicians and as with Voices of Praise he clearly bows down to the skill of the gypsy musicians he has assembled, giving them time and space to  weave their music around his desert ballads of hanging judges and gunfighters to create something wholly unique.

This is particularly the case with the guitarist Raimondo Amador, whose work brings an added touch of class to this album.

Among our highlights are ‘Notoriety’ and ‘Blood Orange’, both tracks featuring superb backing vocals from Prin La La and Lonna Kelley respectively.

Another is the signature track ‘Cowboy Boots on Cobble Stones’, which you can imagine Gleb writing as he walks around Cordoba, where the bulk of the album was recorded.

While Gelb is rooted in the Americana sections of record stores, it is not a tag he particularly likes, especially as he has a far broader focus on music. It is little wonder that on his website he simple refers to himself as ‘from Earth’. We look forward to his next musical destination with interest.


by Joe Lepper


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Top 100 Albums (40-31)

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Top 100 Albums (40-31)

Posted on 29 March 2011 by Joe

We are entering the home straight and edging ever nearer the Top 10 best indie and alternative albums of all time.

We have been releasing this list ten at a time every Friday. We hope you enjoy this sixth instalment. The rest of the Top 100 can be found here.

40. Dismemberment Plan – Emergency & I

Pitchfork’s 9.6/10 score followed by the words “if you consider yourself a fan of groundbreaking pop, go out and buy this album right now. Now. Get up. Go,”  perfectly sum up the brilliance of 1999’s Emergency & I. The third album by this Washington DC band is packed full of creativity. As  another of the city’s key bands Fugazi did a decade earlier Dismemberment Plan took punk and pulled and stretched it this way and that.  Songs about growing up, about finding work and love in the city are strewn across the album but it’s the  song construction that is perhaps the most intriguing aspect. Across each track there’s a sense of chaos in the verse that eventually explode into the tightest bunch of anthemic choruses you will ever hear. As Pitchfork said in 1999, what are you waiting for, get out and buy this.

39. Devo – Freedom of Choice


After their punky debut and scatter-shot second album Freedom of Choice showed Devo creating an album with a cohesive feel and a strong band identity. The guitars are still evident (especially on the genius pop opener ‘Girl U Want’) but this is the album where they became a predominantly synth based act. The thumping drums and pulsing synth bass-lines propel the album along at pace and add order behind Mark Mothersbaugh’s vocals and the effects heavy lead lines. Devo are a much more literate band than people give them credit and the lyrical themes of the human experience of life and relationships run through the album. ‘Whip It’, their best known song and biggest hit, looks at the relationship side and the title track explores people’s reluctance to exploit the freedom that modern life has gifted us. Devo are a band whose image and style has served to distract from their qualities as musicians and songwriters, if you want proof that there is more to them than radiation suits and flowerpot hats (or, to give them their correct name ‘Energy Domes’) then give this album a listen.

38.  Blur – Park Life

“For me, Parklife is like a loosely linked concept album..it’s the travels of the mystical lager-eater, seeing what’s going on in the world and commenting on it,” says Blur frontman Damon Albarn of the band’s third  and best album. We almost see what he means. The album does indeed feel like a journey through London, meeting its characters and experiencing their moods, from the synth pop hits of ‘Girls and Boys’ to the whirly gig instrumental ‘The Debt Collector’ through to the soulful ‘To The End.’ Nearly 20  years on it remains one of the finest English pop albums ever released, to be ranked alongside some of the best work of those that influenced them, most notably The Kinks and XTC.

37. Matthew Sweet – Girlfriend

Singer-songwriter Matthew Sweet was following a similar path to Teenage Fanclub in 1991 with his power-pop release Girlfriend, very much influenced by the jangle-pop of The Beatles, The Byrds and Big Star. Backed by an all-star band that featured (among others) Television’s Richard Lloyd and Lloyd Cole on guitar it is an album that is classic and timeless all at once. The melodies on the album are classic pop and work brilliantly against his slightly grizzled vocals, ‘I’ve Been Waiting’, ‘Looking At The Sun’ and ‘I Wanted To Tell You’ all stand out as instant classics. It is also very much a guitar album and he isn’t afraid to let the band rock when it suits, such as on the opener ‘Divine Intervention’ and ‘Evangeline’. It was a big hit for Sweet, despite having been dropped from his major contract prior to its release, and led to a string of successful albums in the 1990s. The 2006 release is worth seeking out for a host of bonus tracks and demo versions.

36. The Strokes – Is This It

Sometimes keeping it simple can be the most effective policy in music. The Strokes did this superbly on their stunning 2001 debut Is This It. Like a dirty punk Velvet Underground this is track after track of hook laden, simple guitar rock. It reinvigorated a genre of indie rock that was looking for a new set of faces and The Strokes were certainly that. With singer Julian Casablancas they were the personification of cool, street smart young punks belting out raw tunes all at around the perfect pop three minute mark. Since then they have failed to capture that sense of youth and energy, with even their comeback album Angles receiving lukewarm reviews. While ‘Last Nite’ is a particular highlight of Is This It, this is exactly the kind of album you can bask in from start to finish, marvelling at how effortless it all sounds.

35.  Felt – Forever Breathes The Lonely Word

When Lawrence Hayward (known only as Lawrence) formed Felt he announced  they would release 10 albums, 10 singles and spilt-up after 10 years, and that is exactly what they did. Their 6th and best album, Forever Breathes the Lonely Word, showcases a perfect indie-pop sound, a sound that epitomises the C86 era (although Felt weren’t featured on that particular compilation). You can hear the influence of the band on artists as varied as Belle and Sebastian, The Manic Street Preachers and The Tyde, and their sound is captured perfectly on the 8 songs here.The music is catchy pop perfection, and Lawrence’s vocals and lyrical themes are interesting enough to make it something just a little bit special. Any album that includes a song titled ‘All The People That I Like Are Those that Are Dead’ demands just over 30 minutes of your time surely?

34. Radiohead – The Bends

Back in 1995 when Radiohead were just starting out on their road to stadium pomposity they produced this gem of an album. It came almost out of nowhere for this at the time barely passable indie rock act, who had previously only mustered one half decent single in ‘Creep’.  Clearly they’d been storing up their best stuff for The Bends. From start to finish it is packed with some of the most epic tracks in indie rock as the band revelled in discarding the grunge influence on previous album Pablo Honey and finding their own sound. It is no surprise that John Leckie, who so far is this list’s most prolific producer, was at the helm. He deserves high praise for The Bends, which features highlights including ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’ and ‘High and Dry’. The Bends impact on the band also cannot be underestimated. It gave them the focus to produce OK Computer, which is widely regarded as their masterpiece, and propel them to their current position as one of the UK’s biggest rock acts.

33. Yo La Tengo – I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One

By the time they released I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One in 1997 Yo la Tengo were firmly established as a trio with James McNew’s bass supporting the guitar/vocals of Ira Kaplan and the drums/vocals of Georgia Hubley. Yo La Tengo are the quintessential geeks indie rock band and it might surprise new listeners to hear what a varied and playful record this is. The dreamy instrumental opener ‘Return To Hot Chicken’ is followed by the funky ‘Moby Octopad’ before moving to the Sonic Youth meets shoegaze feedback and squalling guitars of the ‘Sugarcube’. The album features the usual selection of cover versions with the Beach Boys ‘Little Honda’ being a particular success. McNew throws in the acoustic gem ‘Stockholm Syndrome’, nicely breaking up the album at the mid-way point. It is an album of so many high points that it is hard to pick a favourite track, so I’m going to sit on the fence and pick two. The organ lead ‘Autumn Sweater’ is dreamy, melodic and evocative, ‘Center of Gravity’ is a lovely piece of kitsch bossa-pop with some great vocal interplay between Georgia and Ira. This album is an example of just how inventive, fun and exciting American indie rock can be.

32. Primal Scream  – Screamadelica

So many  indie bands, from The Soup Dragons to That Petrol Emotion, attempted to embrace dance music and the emerging acid house scene during the early 1990s. But while most failed Primal Scream’s Screamadelica was a shining example of success. With DJ Andrew Weatherall behind the desk for much of the album Bobby Gillespie’s Scottish indie rockers were transformed. ‘Loaded’ and ‘Come Together’ are among the most successful dance music influenced singles, but the album has so much more than simply merging acid house with indie rock. 1960s Psychedelia, gospel and blues are among other striking influences. Among our  favourite tracks is the band’s excellent version of The 13th Floor Elevators ‘Slip Inside This House’. The album deservedly won the 1992 Mercury Music Prize and brought success for the band that has continued to this day despite numerous line up changes.  Screamadelica was re-released in 2011 with a whole bunch of extras that are worth checking out.

31. Giant Sand – The Love Songs

The Love Songs was Giant sands 3rd album and stands as a high watermark for Howe Gelb’s oft-changing desert rock band. The band was made up of Green On Red’s Chris Cacavas on keyboards, future Calexico member John Convertino on drums and former Go-Go (and Gelb’s then wife) Paula Jean Brown on bass. Matched to Gelb’s dischordant guitar and husky vocals they produce a great sound that is constantly walking an attractive fine line between order and chaos. Listeners more used to Gelb’s recent output may be surprised by how rocky and catchy the songs are here. The bar room jazz elements are present but the guitar work wouldn’t be out of place on a J Mascis record. ‘Wearing The Robes of Bible Black’ (a world away from the version featured on ‘Sno Angel Like You) kicks things off perfectly and the songs thunder along nicely right up until the closing track, a wistful take on Lieber and Stoller’s ‘Is That All There Is’. An essential record for anyone who wants to hear how good country rock can sound.

Compiled by Joe Lepper and Dorian Rogers


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