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Giant Sand - Provisions

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Artist: Giant Sand

Album: Provisions

Label: Yep Roc

Review date: Sep. 17, 2008

Howe Gelb’s last record Sno Angel Like You enlisted the gospel choir, the Voices of Praise, to fill out his sound, his cracked and wandering voice set against harmonies and counterpoints. It was, many people thought, a career highlight. With Provisions, he is back to a more minimalist sound, relying primarily on his ‘00s band – drummer Peter Dombernowsky, guitarist Anders Pederson and bassist Thoger Lund – to craft dark and open-ended grooves. Not surprisingly, given Gelb’s history of rampant collaboration, a few guests appear: M. Ward trades rockabilly licks with Gelb on the Cash-like "Can Do”; a brass band materializes once or twice; and Isobel Campbell and Neko Case add a soft balm to feverish cuts.

And yet, it’s mostly the band – brought together for Gelb’s 2002 solo effort The Listener and reconvened for Giant Sand’s 2004 Is All Over the Map – that defines Provisions. Their interaction – loose and shambling rather than rigidly controlled, oblique and implicative rather than overtly melodic – makes the record seem less like a manifesto and more like a rumination. Consider "Increment of Love,” with its backslider’s brushes-on-snares shuffle, abrupt flares of blues guitar and deep wells of negative space. You never lose sight, during this song or most of the record’s first half, that the band started with a blank canvas and added sparingly, listening to one another as they went, and perhaps, subtracting as often as they built. This is as close to a single as Provisions has, and yet, it’s subtle, soft-spoken and very loosely put together. The most structured normal-sounding song on the CD is, not surprisingly, a PJ Harvey cover ("The Desperate Kingdom of Love”).

The lyrics are characteristically wry, and open to multiple interpretations. Gelb plays with the way words sound, as well as what they mean, following a surrealist bread trail of associations. For instance, "Belly Full of Fire," finds him tentatively trying out the link between "Vegas" and "Vague, us?" sounding like he’s just thought of it.

My favorite provision is "Muck Machine.” Here, the bass makes a cadence out of lava lamp ooze, the guitar and piano follow along several octaves above, and the drums hold it all together (barely) in a chaotic mix that sounds like country-fried Pere Ubu. Gelb slips in isolated phrases of lounge piano, incongruously melodic and pretty, just to remind you what regular music sounds like.

After ‘Muck Machine," the album turns noisier, more densely instrumented and a good bit less interesting. There’s a whole unstrung funk band in "Saturated Beyond Repair," and a distorted crescendo running through "World’s End State Park," but both seem busy rather than powerful, whereas the earlier cuts – really the whole first half of the album – are spare and ominous and full of space. They stay with you longer. In fact, it’s the wispiest of these tracks, "Stranded Pearl," "Pitch & Sway" and, especially, "Spiral" that seem to stick the hardest. "Spiral" is Gelb’s gospel without the gospel choir, stripped down to piano, voice and elegiac grace, and all the more powerful for it.

By Jennifer Kelly

Other Reviews of Giant Sand

Is All Over The Map

Blurry Blue Mountain

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