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Howe Gelb - The Listener

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Artist: Howe Gelb

Album: The Listener

Label: Thrill Jockey

Review date: Jun. 2, 2003

Lulling Some More Piano

Howe Gelb has forged a career out of being one of rock’s more notable eccentrics. Best known as the elfin-faced bandleader of the Southwestern combos Giant Sand and OP8, Gelb has for many years pasted the indispensable layer of glue that folks like Rainer Ptacek, John Convertino, Joey Burns, and Lisa Germano have heaped their colorful shades of sand atop. For better and (far less often) for worse, Giant Sand records have shaken themselves off to reveal messy, marvelous little mandalas – imprecise, unrehearsed, and often transfixing. In this way, spontaneity has always been Gelb’s guiding principle and, aptly juggled, his most winning attribute. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, with rotating cast in tow, Gelb apotheosized the possibilities of flying by the seat of one’s Levis, and there are a heap of great records (and a smattering of lousy ones) to show for it.

The last few years have witnessed a slow burn-off, with age and a healthy dose of perspective serving to calm the guitar twisters that kicked up so often on the Giant Sand. I should emphasize that this transition has not accompanied a qualitative decline – quality, like everything else about Gelb and Giant Sand, has always been sporadic. Instead, two decades in, Gelb and company have been making some of the better records of their career. 2000’s stunning Chore of Enchantment proved that Gelb could sketch it any which way he felt like, taking the quality of unhinged gusto that characterized 1985’s Valley of Rain and 1988’s The Love Songs – that speedy, drunken wobble across a razor’s edge – and tweaking it elegiacally. Recorded in the wake of Ptacek’s passing, Chore leans with an almost undetectable sorrow on the blade while pushing stubbornly ahead, its blues a radiant Tucson turquoise. 2001’s Confluence, recorded under Gelb’s name, took to task the effort of following Chore’s looming statement, and did so gracefully. Characteristically all over the map (both literally and figuratively), it boasts a goofy, heartfelt charm amidst its moments of spare beauty.

Since then Gelb has persisted in releasing music left and right, much of it in the form of limited bootlegs and one-offs on his Ow Om label. Unfortunately the recent smudged sketches feel like studies for a new picture that has yet to fully develop. Lull Some Piano, a rather tepid collection of jazzy solo piano fragments, was fine because you knew what to expect up front – all but the most diehard Sand-freaks could easily skip out on Gelb’s fingers wandering aimlessly across the ivories. With The Listener, his latest under his new Howe Home moniker, Gelb brings in a slew of collaborators to herald the release of a proper full-length, but all it really amounts to is Gelb lulling some more piano.

Opening with the stately “Glisten,” The Listener sounds at first like an outtake from John Parish’s How Animals Move sessions. The restrained, meditative piano eventually yields to a swelling of violins and by the time the song winds to a close the trained Giant Sand fan will undoubtedly find himself waiting for the sound of a cough, the scrape of a stool, the sudden squeal of a guitar. That doesn’t happen until about eight songs in. Instead, Gelb slides into the quiet bars of “Felonious,” and we’re left to wonder what happened to his chronic case of sonic schizophrenia. To be fair, “Felonious” is a pretty little number – The Listener boasts a handful of pretty little numbers – and the sensibility is all Gelb’s, even if the quiet tinkling feels slightly akin to an old Tom Waits LP. When Howe opens his mouth, after four minutes of playing between the first track and the second, it’s to announce wryly that “The piano’s stealing Lou Reed licks / Licks that he probably stole.” You can almost hear each realization coming to Gelb as he sings it; despite the prolonged somberness there’s a sense of breathing alongside him in the present tense, as if the spontaneous energy of early Giant Sand had appropriately mellowed into hushed and intimate piano improvisations – no less quirky or alive to their moment. By the third track, though, the trail has gone cold. Over the same smoky nightclub piano, Gelb rasps “Jason? Can you hear me? / Can you put me on the list plus one? / My girlfriend thinks she might love me / And my connections.” It’s tongue-in-cheek industry babble under the guise of a half-hearted Sinatra impression, and it drags.

Gelb hits his stride elsewhere on The Listener, and you begin to get a sense of what he’s after. Recorded largely in Aarhus, Denmark – where his wife was preparing to give birth to the couple’s second child – it becomes evident after some painful plodding that Gelb’s looking to combine his space cowboy mystique with some balding European stateliness. Over a trotting Calexico rhythm, Gelb ponders the sound of his “cowboy boots on cobblestones,” and pauses for sporadic flamenco guitar flourishes. It’s a snappy cultural swap, unfettered by the flat one-liners (“You can bumble up your own birthday party / Just by showing up one year late”) that plague too much of the record. “Cowboy Boots” is a keeper, as is “Blood Orange” – a sultry duet with Marie Frank, who twists her Scandinavian accent into a lovely, dusty twang. The supporting band likewise loosens its collective collar, moving out of the café and onto the sidewalk for a loose, shimmering interplay between congas, accordion, guitar, and slinking bass.

Ultimately, however, too much of The Listener finds Gelb bridging his inspired moments with monotonous jazz piano and dusty crooning. Those who favor him in this mode will undoubtedly be pleased by fifty-odd minutes of it, but it’s jarring to hear the reliably unreliable Gelb settling into a remarkably non-anarchic song cycle, one song sliding fluidly into the next. I’d just as soon wait for the sand storms to kick up again.

By Nathan Hogan

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