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Giant Sand - Is All Over The Map

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Artist: Giant Sand

Album: Is All Over The Map

Label: Thrill Jockey

Review date: Dec. 6, 2004

I realized recently – with some chagrin – that in reviewing Howe Gelb’s music twice before (his solo effort The Listener and The Band of Blacky Ranchette’s Still Lookin’ Good to Me) I trotted out the same cliché on both occasions. Thankfully, on his umpteenth Giant Sand full-length, Gelb’s been kind enough to save me the trouble, because the phrase is scratched across the record’s cover.

In a literal sense, the notion of Giant Sand being “all over the map” is more accurate now than ever before. Gelb has traded a perpetually revolving American cast for a handful of Scandinavian players and a British producer/collaborator (John Parish), and his own travels have increased as a result of his marriage to a Danish citizen – a development that’s added a vaguely cosmopolitan vibe to his recent recordings. Of course, the phrase has always worked for the band figuratively, too, and little has changed in that regard. If anything, Giant Sand’s once-novel patchwork of genre elements – everything from ragged Crazy Horse guitar chops to country arrangements, ragtime piano and roaring indie-punk – has grown more foundational with time. For twenty-odd years, “all over the map” has been Giant Sand’s practice space, club stage, recorded history and home base. Now it’s the name of one of their records.

Is All Over the Map opens with a wispy and elongated tune, “Classico,” which boasts many of the distinguishing characteristics of late-period Giant Sand: Snare-driven percussion work, a wandering acoustic guitar melody, tamed lapsteel, droll lyrics, and endearingly alien guitar tones. But the band only pauses briefly in this relaxed mode before roaring back into the Homestead days of the ’80s and early ’90s: Howling guitar twisters full of fractured, collapsing melodies and thudding drum kicks. “I maintain some semblance of control” Gelb sings in the thunderous “Remote,” and it’s a sentiment every bit as definitive as the title's. Gelb’s bands have always been at their best when control seems most illusory, either sonically (the Love Songs heyday) or emotionally (Chore of Enchantment).

Most of this record falls squarely into the former camp. “NYC of Time” is a shambling, amp-quaking born-single that settles into a satisfyingly loud and chiming groove. And then there’s the one-off “Anarchistic Bolshevistic Cowboy Bundle,” a playful Sex Pistols cover that features Gelb’s daughter in the Johnny Rotten role (she can’t roll her r’s, but otherwise handles the job admirably).

Yet many of the full-length’s finest moments are more akin to the Chore mode. “Hood (view from a heidelburg hotel)” is perhaps its best. Skeletally arranged to admit little more than a repetitive guitar lick and some quiet percussion, Gelb unpacks a strange, incomprehensible narrative that’s both an oddly amusing joke (some business about a mirror streaked with cranberry juice slid underneath a hotel door), and a beautiful mystery story whose secrets are framed in the singer’s quiet snorts, twangy puns, and sleepy cul de sacs of illogic.

Much has been made of Gelb’s ability at cobbling together musical forms, but overlooked is his skill at entwining contradictory moods. “Fool” opens like a half-baked nursery rhyme sing-along (“I’m in love with a fool of a girl / a fool of a girl / a fool of a girl ) before melting into an earnest guitar jangle that’s sobered up by Marie Frank’s tender backing. And Vic Chesnutt and Henriette Sennevalt’s bluesy reading of “A Classico Reprise” is rich and drawling, but not so that the Sex Pistols cover that follows feels terribly abrupt. And so it goes, and so you’ll be happy to chase them, (and why fight it?) all over the map.

By Nathan Hogan

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