Giant Sand – Black Out, Glum & Good And Services (reissues)

Having revisited the fertile and free-range early-‘90s chapter of the Giant Sand story a few months back, Fire Records continues its public service spirited reissue campaign by ploughing headlong into the band’s fragmented and febrile trio of early-to-mid-‘90s albums; namely 1993’s rare Black Out, 1994’s revered Glum and 1995’s live Goods And Services.  

Giant Sand - Black Out

Originally released under its Germanic Stromausfall title and recorded during the same sessions as 1993’s homespun Purge & Slouch, the once hard-to-find Black Out is certainly one of the murkiest and most meandering long-players in the Giant Sand catalogue.  Although putting the then core trio line-up of Howe Gelb, John Convertino and Joey Burns in a strictly acoustic configuration sounds straightforwardly appealing on paper, the album is far from being an easy or obvious unplugged set.  With lo-fi production values enveloping Gelb’s rawest gravelled tones and scratchiest acoustic guitar playing, Convertino’s driest drum thwacks and Burns’ dustiest bass licks, Black Out takes vintage Giant Sand songbook extracts and stretches them out in the punishing desert sun until they crinkle and lose sense of time.

So although it contains a clutch of erstwhile rocking barnstormers (such as “Mountain Of Love” and “October Anywhere”), the elasticated tempos, shifted intonations and revised lyrical emphasises almost make them feel like completely different or unfamiliar songs.  Pieces already possessing more intimate characters perhaps sound the strongest in the context of the collection, with the sublime “Seldom Matters” (previously aired on 1991’s Ramp) receiving a deeply strung-out six-minute rendition and the tremendous “Severely Altered On The Hill” (originally a 1985 cut from Giant Sand’s country alter-ego, The Band Of Black Ranchette) bringing in almost voodoo rhythms and Gelb’s most gripping vocal of the whole affair.  Taken as whole, Black Out/Stromausfall is undoubtedly best suited to hard core fans, but as these reissues continue to roll-out there’s sure to be even more of such followers to keep satisfied than ever before.

Giant Sand - Glum

As a studio product from Giant Sand’s first ill-fated and short-lived major label (or)deal, Glum has acquired an semi-mythical reputation within Giant Sand’s patchwork history.  Out of print for years, until Gelb self-reissued it as 2001’s mail-order-and-tour-only Unsungglum CD  – with choice period outtakes interspersed inside its original sequence – the years of elusiveness have magnified the cult status and magnitude of Glum, like say Neil Young’s On The Beach or Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue.  Airing Glum again now, as it makes a final return to regular retail outlets some 17 or so years after its brief first appearance – with the Unsungglum supplementation shifted to the end – makes for an enlightening and revealing experience.  The album still retains its sense of gravitas like almost no other in the band’s canon – except maybe 2000’s soon-to-reappear Chore Of Enchantment – even if its forgivable flaws are now more apparent.

Dominated largely by dense and frequently eruptive Crazy Horse guitars and brooding nocturnal atmospherics, Glum is set on both wide open spaces and within claustrophobic closeness.  Through the prowling title-track, the threatening “Happenstance,” the gnarly “Frontage Road,” the plangent “Painted Bird” and the crescendo-stacking “Faithful,” the discordance of 1992’s Center Of The Universe is rechanneled with greater intensity but less irreverence, perhaps in part reflecting the internal band tensions that Gelb recalls in the revealing sleeve notes. However, the LP generally works better when the tension releases in favour of warmth, pathos and humour.  Hence, the seminal “Yer Ropes” still magnificently distils Giant Sand’s gift for the earthy grooves that helped to inspire the best of the turn of the millenium alt. country movement; the slightly goofy “1 Helvakowboy Song” instrumental reinforces Gelb’s ongoing love of jazz-slanted improvisation and playful ensemble interplay; the plaintive piano-led “Spun” remains one of Gelb’s most affecting and durable ballads; the epic “Left” is one of his best mediations on mortality; the bizarre acoustic “Bird Song” (intoned by Gelb’s daughter Indiosa) reminds us why family will never be excluded from the Giant Sand world for the sake of any record company pressures; and a twinkling makeover of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” (voiced by the late great Pappy Allen) is unquestionably lovely.

Glum is burdened somewhat with a feeling that it could be a more transcendental standalone gem if greater nuance and less aggressive stances had been deployed at the time of its studio construction.  Had also some of the terrific bonus tracks – notably the stunning Lisa Germano-assisted “Remain Distorted” and the wordless “Between The Time It Takes” – been swapped into the original running order then it could have been a more rounded and tighter affair too.  However, hindsight is a double-edged sword and Gelb’s largely self-editing-free approach to making records has proven itself as a lifeblood for sustainability many times over. Overall therefore, this latest 17-track edition of Glum captures some truly golden nuggets within its many tributaries, even if a little patience and clemency is required through immersive listening.

Giant Sand - Goods And Services

Like Black Out, the double-length and live Goods And Services, is another previously rare Europe-only release.  Culled from various and mainly European stage performances it documents an expanded and somewhat unhappy Giant Sand line-up, that Gelb describes as “rockin, but bloated” in the accompanying booklet.  Indeed, with several tracks sprawled out between eight and nearly eleven minutes in duration, this is a rambling compendium that requires a lot of commitment to extract its highlights.  Putting sluggish over-long shots at “Trickle Down System” and “Solomon’s Ride” aside, there are definitely some moments of sparkle to reward a trawl.  For example, there’s a pleasant pedal steel powered trot through “Bender”; a warped sarcastic version of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” (with the dear departed Vic Chesnutt leading the sing-along); a delightfully dolorous deconstruction of “Welcome To My World” with Pappy Allen at the microphone; and an endearingly creepy curl around “Back To The Black And Grey.”  Ultimately, Goods And Services is not for uninitiated then. But for those needing a decent snapshot of Giant Sand live in the 1990s, that saves sifting through the labyrinthine world of bootlegs, this fits the bill adequately enough.

Fire Records