Giant Sand – proVISIONS

Giant Sand

Whilst much of the immeasurable pleasure of Howe Gelb’s immense recorded repertoire – beneath the umbrellas of Giant Sand, OP8, The Band of Blacky Ranchette, Arizona Amp & Alternator and as a solo artist – comes from its ear-foxing diversity and untamed sprawling, it still periodically needs a solid ‘standalone’ album to help make sense of it all. A record that has a consistently strong sound, powering songs that will stand-up to rewiring on future releases. Such enduring staging-posts have previously included 1991’s Ramp, 1994’s Glum and 2000’s Chore Of Enchantment from Giant Sand; 2003’s Still Lookin’ Good To Me by The Band of Blacky Ranchette; and 2006’s ‘Sno Angel Like You as Gelb trading solo. Now here comes another to add to that bounteous list; the perplexingly-named proVISIONS.

Although proVISIONS is the first official Giant Sand set in four years – being the follow-up to 2004’s somewhat scrappy Is All Over… The Map – Gelb hasn’t been idle, as solo and other side-projects have testified. Yet, it feels as if he has deliberately stalled returning to his base camp band, perhaps sensing that the Giant Sand discography needed something more considered and substantial after straining itself in the wake of the shadow-casting peak of Chore. Some of this downtime may have come from Gelb’s need to finish training-up musicians worthy of filling the gaping void left by Joey Burns and John Convertino (after the duo ditched their Giant Sand rhythm section duties in favour of full-time Calexico commitments around the turn of the millennium). More than anything perhaps, Gelb just had to find himself in the right frame of mind to cut another milestone with the group he has led since the early-‘80s; as his accompanying press release statement surmises more succinctly, “Giant Sand is a mood.”

proVISIONS is certainly a collection marinated in an atmospheric mood but it is also one refreshingly locked into newly-moistened grooves. Whilst it is undoubtedly blessed by generous guest appearances from several outside contributors, the LP scores highly due to the relatively new core unit of Gelb, bassist Thøger T. Lund, drummer Peter Dombernowsky and slide guitarist Anders Pedersen tightly-galvanizing into weaving yet sturdy arrangements. With such strong frameworks around them, Gelb’s compositions are guided gently back into both the purring nocturnal dustiness of Glum and the serene romanticism of Chore.

The tantalizing opening twosome of “Stranded Pearl” and “Without A Word” – with sultry vocals from Isobel Campbell and Neko Case respectively – sets the scene with magnificently graceful gravitas, raising the bar high for most of the ensuing tracks. Thus, soon after we’re provided with a truly seductive cover of PJ Harvey’s “The Desperate Kingdom of Love” and the plaintive piano-led ruminations of “Spiral,” which both bathe in the same waters as magisterial Chore classics like “Bottom Line Man” and “Way To End The Day.” Elsewhere, welcome curveballs come with the loping rubbery rhythms of “Muck Machine” and the ‘50s rockabilly twanging of the M Ward-assisted “Can Do.” More unruly and perverse is the expansive finale of “Well Enough Alone,” which rewrites the beatific gospel-ballad “Nail In The Sky” (from ‘Sno Angel Like You) as a guitar-mangling Neil Young epic.

There are a few acts of self-sabotage that prevent proVISIONS from true transcendence though. “World’s End State Park (Wordless)” is a directionless discordant instrumental that jars with the overall sense of craftsmanship and restraint, as does the slightly meandering messiness of “Saturated Beyond Repair.” The most unfathomable faux-pas is however, the last-minute decision to replace a sublime nine or so minute Krautrock-like re-rendering of Ramp-gem “Romance Of Falling” (as still featured on this writer’s promo copy) with the likeable but less revelatory “Belly Full of Fire” (previously attempted on Gelb’s solo tour-CD, Upside Down Home 2002).

Curiously awkward sequencing selections aside, proVISIONS is certainly one of the most compelling entries in Howe Gelb’s vast sonic library. Although it dodges near-perfection almost deliberately, it confirms that Gelb’s maverick creativity has an astute methodology in its benevolent madness.