Giant Sand – Backyard Barbeque Broadcast, Cover Magazine & Is All Over The Map (reissues)

With still a slew of solo albums and off-shoot releases waiting in the wings for resurrection, Fire Records’ dedicated Howe Gelb reissue mission finally reaches the last three ‘official’ Giant Sand albums needing to be brought back into the world.  After the standalone-to-savour re-release of 2000’s seminal Chore Of Enchantment a month or two ago, inevitably the reappearance of 1995’s Backyard Barbeque Broadcast, 2002’s Cover Magazine and 2004’s Is All Over The Map was always going to be a little less special.  However, this archival endeavour has proven time and again that the Giant Howe story has to be retold comprehensively and with unflinching honestly to make historical sense.

Giant Sand - Backyard Barbeque Broadcast

Drawn from two radio sessions for the radio station WMFU between 1994 and 1995 (with one stray extra recording from elsewhere taped in 1993), Backyard Barbeque Broadcast has often previously been filed next to other rare and experimental releases like 1993’s warped and unwired Stromausfall (AKA Blackout) and 1995’s on-stage sprawler Goods And Services.  However, listening back with 2011 ears it proves to be a far more enduring and warmer record than either of those two lesser-loved long-players.  Certainly, the fact that the opening medley track – known as “BBQ Suite (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)” – runs to nearly 23 minutes may explain why BBQ has previously been marked-out by sheer self-indulgence.  However, “BBQ Suite…” is perversely what makes the LP so endearing.  Mixing-up pre-existing Giant Sand gems and a couple of covers, the rustic grooves that the then core trio of Gelb, John Convertino and Joey Burns knitted together with passing-through pedal steel player Bill Elm (The Friends Of Dean Martinez) makes for a strangely captivating and blissed-out piece of music, that makes affectionate nods to the more mellow and atmospheric wares of Captain Beefheart, Ennio Morricone, Tom Waits and Thelonious Monk en route.

Outside of the laid-back expansive “BBQ Suite…” there are further delights to be rediscovered; such as the strung-out “Mope-A-Long” and “Get To Leave,” the corny but catchy country nugget “Lester Lampshade,” the melancholic piano-led meditation of “Blue Waltz Reprise” and a newly-appended gorgeous slow-mo version of the classic desert-rocker “Yer Ropes.”  There are still a few meandering misfire moments – within “Lean” and through the entirety of the bizarre “Rolling Stones I Am” for instance – but overall the reignited Backyard Barbeque Broadcast is a quiet revelation.

Giant Sand - Cover Magazine

With Joey Burns and John Convertino’s extra-curricular Calexico project having turned into a more commercially successful separate enterprise around the turn of the millennium, Giant Sand’s continued existence was called into question when Gelb banded-around the subtitle of ‘retirement issue’ with the release of 2002’s Cover MagazineIn reality, the covers collection may have heralded the superannuation of the most industrious and intuitive Giant Sand line-up but not the conclusion of the group as an ‘anti-brand.’  Incorporating a dizzying array of styles, song sources, guests and studio as well as live recordings, Cover Magazine is a far from an ordinary collection of other people’s material.

Whilst there are tributes to Giant Sand’s most obvious peers and predecessors there are also some remarkable leaps into the unknown, that collectively celebrate both the long-running near-telepathic triangulation of the Gelb-Convertino-Burns trio and the band’s open-door policy for collaborators.  Highlights do arise, with a ragged PJ Harvey-bolstered punk attack on X’s “Johnny Hit And Run Pauline,” two joyous alternate stabs at the oft-covered “The Beat Goes On,” a dark mesmeric live rendition of Rainer Ptacek’s “Inner Flame,” a literally watery and sparse refashioning of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” and a broken-jazz merger of Goldfrapp’s “Human” and “Lovely Head” being the most effective.  However, wilful-sloppiness, treated vocals and lo-fi production values sometimes under-fulfil promising reinventions (such as with Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand”) as well as making more easily-fitting selections (like Johnny Cash’s “I’m Leavin’ Now”) sound somewhat throwaway.  Still, at the time it was perhaps an achievement for Gelb to have got Burns and Convertino back into the studio for one seemingly last hurrah under the Giant Sand flag, so the fact that Cover Magazine was made at all – let alone that it delivered a handful of idiosyncratic gems – is perhaps worth of commendation in the grand scheme of things.  Not a classic then but not to be forgotten too easily either.

Giant Sand - Is All Over The Map

After a smattering of closet-clearing self-released ‘official bootlegs’ and some solo/side-project releases, Gelb unretired the Giant Sand name with a new line-up of Danish members (namely guitarist Anders Pedersen, bassist Thøger Lund and drummer Peter Dombernowsky) for the very much overlooked Is All Over The Map in 2004.  It perhaps isn’t surprising that the long-player got a tad lost, given the flood of Gelb-related produce around the early-2000s and even because of Gelb’s own belief that “maybe it’s a record with only one real song.”  So whilst upon original release some of us long-time Sandheads might have suffered from fatigued ambivalence, the aptly anointed Is All Over The Map has aged rather better than expected.

Looked at again as an exercise in Gelb exploring whether the Giant Sand ‘mood’ still had legs on it beyond the Convertino/Burns years, the LP is a worthwhile affair.  Drafting in a few family and extended family members (such as wife Sofie, daughter Indiosa, John Parish, Marie Frank, Henriette Sennenvalt, Scout Niblett and the late Vic Chesnutt) on top of the new hub players almost certainly helped Gelb re-oil the Giant Sand joints too.  As John Parish rightly points out in the new sleeve notes, Is All Over The Map most closely recalls 1992’s Center Of The Universe, particularly in the sense that some of its noisier guitar-driven numbers are offset by droll honeyed female backing vocals and that it switches sonic-settings abruptly (sometimes in the space of one song).

Hence, with patient fresh-airing previously undiscovered pleasures now rise to the top; such as the rueful “Classico,” the fuzzy punning “NYC Of Time,” the savage Scout Niblett-aided “Remote,” a stripped-down reworking of the sublime “Cracklin’ Water” (originally released by side-venture OP8), the barroom jazz interludes of “Rag” and “Play,” the mournful mysterious “Drab,” the lengthy intimate “Hood (View From A Heidelberg Hotel),” the Hispanic shimmy of “Fool” and the bittersweet “Classico Reprise” (featuring Vic Chesnutt duetting with wonderful world-weariness alongside Henriette Sennenvalt).  Ultimately, it’s remains a bit of a rough mixed-bag – certainly with the likes of the bizarre discordant Indiosa-sung reworking of The Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy In The UK” as “Anarchistic Bolshevistic Cowboy Bundle” remaining within – but as a studio warm-up for the latter-day band set-up ahead of 2008’s return-to-form Giant Sand LP, proVISIONS, it’s far more than just a glorified rehearsal room recording.

Fire Records