Perhaps being conscious that his own bounteous back catalogue has somewhat overshadowed his more recent repertoire – due to the lustrous ongoing reissue programme from Fire Records – Howe Gelb seems to have deliberately upped the ante for this newly-cut collection with the double-sized Giant Giant Sand. Not content with merely enlarging his latter-day Giant Sand line-up to approximately the size of a football team, Gelb has also ambitiously conceived Tucson as a 19-track quasi-autobiographical ‘country rock opera’ about a “semi grizzled man with overt boyish naïveté” set in the Arizona city that has served his maverick muse so well over the last three decades (and vice versa).
Those fearing something unwieldy or overblown should, however, rest easy. For although the group has been expanded and been given a narrative arc to follow, Tucson is a remarkably easy-going and laid-back affair that can be taken with or without its conceptual trappings. It stretches out often hazily like the desert-baked Tucson itself, with moments of dusty drama evenly-spaced across its lengthy tracklisting.
Benevolently exploiting the talents of the multi-cultured Giant Giant Sand membership, which features Danes and Arizonans, Tucson is diverse yet almost seamlessly-structured. Hence, there are many routes found through twangy country rock as well as detours into Tex-Mex territory, jazzy enclaves and folk-blues hide-outs – sometimes all within the space of one song. At its best, Tucson pushes forward beautifully, with both widescreen purpose and romantic intimacy. Being possibly the most cohesive long-player from Gelb in a while, it almost seems rude to dissect out the key moments from such a fully composite collection. Nevertheless, the true highlights do swim to the surface.
Thus, the epic storytelling of “Forever And A Day” is lustrous and filmic in its reach; a joyous string and brass marinated makeover of “Thing Like That” vastly improves upon its wonky original take on 1992’s Center Of The Universe; “We Don’t Play Tonight” could be a lost Duane Eddy and Johnny Cash collaboration; the finger-clicking “Ready Or Not” is a sublime sultry vehicle for guest Lonna Kelley to curl her tones around; “Slag Heap” provides a prowling barrio bar stomp, shuffle and sing-along; and the pretty redemptive “Recovery Mission” could be a worthy sequel to “Spun” from 1994’s Glum.
As per music critic speculating tradition, Tucson might have made for a tighter and more striking single rather than double-album. But then of course, by Gelb tradition, he doesn’t deliver in half-measures. However, as warts ‘n’ all Gelbian releases go, this is far from being an ugly or unkempt affair. Quite the contrary; this could be a rare Giant Sand LP that manages to be both sophisticated and sprawling. Overall, Tucson is destined to be labelled as a ‘must-keep’ for those struggling to house their vast Giant Howe collections.
Giant Giant Sand – “Forever And A Day”