Giant Sand – Valley Of Rain, Ballad Of A Thin Line Man & Storm (reissues)

To make approximate sense of the most recent quarter century of Howe Gelb’s vast catalogue with Giant Sand, The Band Of Blacky Ranchette, OP8, Arizona Amp & Alternator and as a solo artist, arguably the best place to start might be somewhere broadly in the middle years.  But with around 30 ‘official’ albums and two boxsets sprawling out over the next year or so, as part of Fire Records’ hugely ambitious and thoughtful reissue campaign, it’s really only practical to move through Gelb’s body of song in broadly chronological order by each main band or project.  Therefore, Fire have started the crusade right back at the beginning with the opening Giant Sand triptych of 1985’s Valley Of Rain, 1986’s Ballad Of A Thin Line Man and 1987’s Storm.

Giant Sand - Valley Of Rain

Having formed two bands – the countrified The Band Of Blacky Ranchette and the ostensibly rock-slanted Giant Sand – from the embers of the short-lived Giant Sandworms, Gelb’s early career became defined with Giant Sand’s Valley Of Rain debut. Wrapped in an iconic landscape sleeve, Valley Of Rain helped create the ‘desert-rock’ tag that critics attached to Gelb’s wares before the subsequent Americana and alt. country labels became the norm.  The album might once have made for obvious bedfellowship with Paisley Underground bands like The Dream Syndicate and Green On Red, thanks to its strong shades of Zuma-era Neil Young, butch barroom bluster and feverish storytelling.  Moreover, the still soaring anthemic title-track could have been a seminal college-radio touchstone had not R.E.M. put out “Driver 8” around the same time.  However, age has made a distinctive difference to Valley Of Rain, especially in its newly-restored ‘should-have-been’ mix and track sequence (that would have been released originally had some of the original master tapes not been stolen from a band van in Los Angeles, as recounted in Gelb’s illuminating and surprisingly riddle-free sleeve notes).  The LP now appears as a more aggressively focused, less contemporaneously conformist and all-together stronger beast.  Although somewhat unrepresentative of the formative Giant Sand sound that we’ve heard previously, this new/real Valley Of Rain is a ravaging pleasure that owes its jagged edges and seemingly faster pace to the post-punk angularity of Gang Of Four, Joy Division, Mission Of Burma and even The Birthday Party or The Gun Club, whilst still honouring some of the aforementioned Paisley patterned sensibilities.

Giant Sand - Ballad Of A Thin Line Man

With Valley Of Rain freshly redefined as a gnarly guitar-bass-drums feast, Ballad Of A Thin Line Man now feels less like a straightforwardly connective sequel.  Instead, it gives bigger hints of Gelb’s subsequent smorgasbord genre-tasting with its nascent eclecticism.  So whilst clangourous six-string chug and jangle rules the sound waves across the terrifically towering “Thin Line Man,” inside a careening warped cover of “All Along The Watchtower” and within the fuzzy barbed “Hard Man To Get To Know,” elsewhere the envelope is tentatively pushed into different and more distinctive directions.  Thus, the gorgeous backing vocal and piano drenched “Graveyard” flirts with Bob Dylan’s gospel detours; “Who Am I?” showcases Gelb’s playful one-man acoustic troubadour persona that endures to this day; and a rousing multi-part makeover of Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory” brings in a dollop of welcome pathos amidst some of the boyish bravado.  The forever-evolving collaborative ethos comes to the fore too, with the integration of Paula Jean Brown – an erstwhile member of The Go-Go’s and the first Mrs. Gelb – who not only works as a galvanising X-style co-ed vocal foil throughout the record but also assumes the leading role on the charming folk-rock shimmering of “The Chill Outside.” Even if it’s not a consistent classic in the Giant Sand canon, Ballad Of A Thin Line Man evidently and enthusiastically sowed the seeds for future triumphs.

Giant Sand - Storm

Sometimes misheard – by this listener at least – as a functional and unremarkable bridge between Giant Sand’s earlier rockier pastures and the more assuredly experimental lands found from 1988’s The Love Songs onwards, Storm is actually a more interesting record in parts than once thought.  Whilst there is a fair bit of weariness induced by the overly ramped-up ‘80s snare drums and Gelb’s on/off affection for sneery vocal ticks on a handful of domineering formulaic rockers – such as “Big Rock,” “The Replacement” and “Town With Little Or No Pity” – unconventionality bubbles in its underbelly. Hence, the murky lo-fi “Back To Black And Grey” dabbles with drum loops and barely-tuned acoustic guitars; “Three 6ixes” toys with tongue-in-cheek Sun Records rockabilly; “Was Is A Big Word” introduces Gelb’s piano-stool philosophising; and a forgivably corny cover of The Band’s “The Weight” confirms a knack for mutating country-rock’s DNA with both respect and disrespect.

Taken as a trilogy, these initial masterfully reformatted and rejuvenated reissues bode extremely well for the time when we reach the Giant Howe albums already known for their sure-fire goodness and greatness.  In the interim, these lesser-loved long-players deserve some fresh attention.

Fire Records