Giant Sand – The Love Songs, Long Stem Rant & Swerve (reissues)

After a somewhat welcome mid-wintertime pause in a reissue program that’s destined to exhaust wallets and storage space well across 2011 – and perhaps beyond – here comes three more carefully restored antique Giant Sand pieces from Fire Records.  Capturing the first of many transitional phases in the group’s history, this latest trio of relics – 1988’s The Love Songs, 1989’s Long Stem Rant and 1990’s Swerve – capture Howe Gelb taking Giant Sand from nascent desert-rock through to the fringes of kaleidoscopic Americana that marked-out the group’s hyper-productive 1990s.

Giant Sand - The Love Songs

The Love Songs has often been cited by long-time loyalists as one of the strongest sets in Giant Sand’s early repertoire.  Certainly as far as Gelb’s maverick songwriting goes, it does contain two sterling ‘standards’ that have served him well for subsequent reinterpretations across multifarious solo and side-projects; namely the barroom scuffling “Wearing The Robes Of A Bible Black” and the volcanically effervescent “Mountain Of Love.”  Musically, it stretches out even further from the preceding Storm LP.  The buoyantly bizarre “Fingernail Moon, Barracuda And Me” splutters around in a no-fi mix of battered synths, wobbly organs, treated piano and a rudimentary drum machine; “Almost The Politician’s Wife” peels out in a bone-dry acoustic-blues arrangement with crazy carnivalesque interludes; and a version of the oft-covered “Is That All There Is?” unashamedly enters the post-Swordfishtrombones world of Tom Waits.  Being familiar with only a second-hand vinyl copy of the original nine-song release, the pin-sharp remastered clarity does however contradict this writer’s romanced memories of The Love Songs a little, given that some of the dated ‘80s production values and studio experiments have now become more glaringly evident. Most notoriously, the erstwhile Homestead CD’s re-attached bonus track take on Smokey Robinson’s “Get Ready” almost sounds like a deranged Run-DMC outtake (yes, really).  Still, overall The Love Songs has retained most of its warped charm and no album that introduced drummer extraordinaire John Convertino into the extended Giant Sand family tree deserves to go unmentioned.

Giant Sand - Long Stem Rant

Reduced temporarily to a two-piece rump of just Gelb and Convertino, Long Stem Rant remains a glorious mess of a record and a waking moment for Gelb’s future penchant for loose improvisation and rawer aesthetics.  Shaving off the production impediments of its prequels, the LP could crudely be described as a four-way wrestling match between Hank Williams, Captain Beefheart, Thelonious Monk and Dinosaur Jr.  Again, there are some great songs that have held out for subsequent and sometimes superior rewiring, even if the versions caught within are slightly frazzled in a primordial stew; namely the bluegrass mown “Loving Cup,” the rockabilly-framed “Picture Shows” and the coruscating guitar-mangling “Get To Leave.”  Elsewhere, there are some rarely revisited gems buried in the tracklist; like the drum-led Saharan-rock stomper “Sandman,” the largely serene “Sucker In The Cage” and the extended bumpy road trip that is “Paved Road To Berlin.”  Surrounding such nuggets are the long-player’s mood-defining, if less easily listenable, sonic mutations that channel amp-shredding distortion (“Unfinished Love” and “Anthem”), freeform-jazz schizophrenia (“Smash Jazz” and “Its Long ‘Bout Now”) and tape-loop nausea (“Lag Craw”).  CD bonus cuts, both previously and freshly added, continue the wilfully lo-fi sense of adventure, bringing in a Cuban café soundtrack (“Searchlight Cha Cha”), proto-Jon Spencer/White Stripes blues brutalism (“Return Of The Big Red Guitar”) and the utterly unhinged “Hardly A Day.”  Clearly, Long Stem Rant is not an album for the faint-eared or newbie Giant Sand explorer but it is essential – particularly in this 22-track incarnation – in trying to understand what has kept Gelb’s long eclectic career ticking along at such an unpredictable and uncompromising rate.

Giant Sand - Swerve

Planted in-between the wild rugged prairies of Long Stem Rant and the fertile rustic pastures of 1991’s Ramp in the vast Giant Sand discography, Swerve has often been ambivalently overlooked despite being the band’s crucial stepping stone from the ‘80s into the ‘90s.  Such oversighting should happily be rectified with this newly re-sequenced edition.  With Mark Walton (Dream Syndicate) joining on bass, Chris Cacavas back on organ duties (after previously appearing on The Love Songs), Steve Wynn adding guest guitar parts and Juliana Hatfield bringing in bubble-gum backing vocals, Swerve is a far more textual affair than its predecessors, that makes greater use of the studio and wider band abilities.  Hence, on the must-hear front there’s the impossibly infectious sound effects-laden funk-rock of “Can’t Find Love” the brooding atmospheric “Some Kind Of Love,” the battered gospel of “Trickle Down System” and a sincere epic rendering of Bob Dylan’s still-then-be-rehabilitated ‘born again’ ballad “Every Grain Of Sand.”  There’s more too of the playful jazz-embracing experiments explored on Long Stem Rant – in the shape of “Swerver” and “Swerving” – albeit respectively softened by Hatfield’s childlike coo and Cacavas’ rambunctious organ.  There are a few lesser moments – like the booming cavernous “Dream Stay,” the meandering “Former Version Of Ourselves” and the throwaway “Final Swerve” – that ultimately still prevents Swerve arguing a case for a much higher-profile in the Giant Sand catalogue. However, on balance the record now stands up much more distinctively and respectably than before, especially with some less-cluttered alternate album track mixes added as supplementary material.

Digested as another set of three, these latest reissues – with more revealing historical notes from Howe Gelb – again shine fresh light on Giant Sand’s still too secret history with warts ‘n’ all archivist affection.  More soon please…

Fire Records