Howe Gelb – ‘Sno Angel Like You

Howe Gelb - 'Sno Angel Like You

So complicated and cryptic has Howe Gelb’s recent-day trail of long-players become, that his fragmentary career moves increasingly seem like the Americana equivalent of episodes of cult plane-wrecked-on-a-Southern-Pacific-island TV serial Lost. Thus, there’s often a new name to add to the guest personnel manifest (the likes of M Ward, Neko Case, John Parish et al.), an increasing propensity to slide in and out of back-stories (with songs from Gelb’s vast solo, Giant Sand and Band of Blacky Ranchette back catalogue being revisited on a semi-regular basis) and always the hint of a mystery future plotline to keep magnetising addictive impulses (hence every interview round for a new album documents Gelb talking more about the next one, two or even three releases in the works). As clumsy as that analogy may seem, it may help to put the latest Gelb solo affair into some understandable context.

A long-time coming down his backlogged song pipeline ’Sno Angel Like You is the record Gelb has been mythical talking-up for a couple of years now – his Canadian gospel-album. Yes, you read correctly, a gospel album made in Canada by Howe Gelb, the arch Arizona druid of all things desert-rocking, dusty and rustic tackling a genre that’s latterly become synonymous with overblown studio theatrics and expediently facsimiled spirituality. Any fears of Gelb giving away his muse to the contemporary misuse of gospel ensembles are, of course, misplaced. Gelb has gone back to the basic earthiness of gospel, using it like he has deployed classic country, blues and jazz before to smudge sublimely with his waxed lyrical philosophising. Although the these recordings are still driven by Gelb’s distinctive guitar/piano playing and gruff vocals (closely partnered on this occasion by Arcade Fire’s Jeremy Gara on drums), the gospel choir isn’t just bolted-on for novelty effect. The very talented members of Canada’s Voices of Praise Gospel Choir are given room to inhabit and immerse themselves into these fourteen tracks without having to resort to religious platitudes. In effect, Gelb has nailed one of the first known secular alt. country gospel albums. More importantly, it’s a very good secular alt. country gospel album.

Whilst Gelb is prone to schizophrenic-like sonic sloppiness, the reasonably strict gospel specification for ’Sno Angel Like You gives him the focus to deliver the collection with compelling consistency. The opening triumvirate of “Get To Leave”, “Paradise Here Abouts” and “But I Did Not” all cement the fusion of Gelb’s atypical electro-acoustic strides with the soothing yet emphatic vocal balm of the choir. With the mixture well established early on, the album glides and bounces along at a great pace; allowing Gelb to subtly slip in three Giant Sand songs and three by Rainer Ptacek (Gelb’s erstwhile collaborator and dear departed best friend) in amongst newly composed delights like “Nail In The Sky”. In the retrospective respect, the results are hit as well as miss. Whilst Giant Sand classic “Robes of Bible Black” and Ptacek’s “The Farm” sound inferior next to their previously recorded versions, the wonderful “Worried Spirits” (by Ptacek) becomes almost as gloriously rousing as The Stones’ Beggars Banquet-finale “Salt of the Earth”. High praise indeed.

With its enjoyable fresh setting for material old and new in, the bulk of ’Sno Angel Like You captures Gelb in truly rude artistic health. Where Gelb goes from here is yet to be revealed, but on this evidence – and by his many historic precedents – it’s guaranteed to be some place interesting.