Howe Gelb – Little Sand Box (boxset)

Having performed the herculean task of bringing the near-entirety of Giant Sand’s core catalogue back into print since 2010, Fire Records now has the somewhat trickier task of sorting out the rest of Howe Gelb’s labyrinthine discography.  Whilst side-projects such as The Band Of Blacky Ranchette and Arizona Amp & Alternator patiently wait their turn for enhanced reissues, along comes this generous and meticulously compiled 8CD boxset to get the next logical tranche of the Gelb canon – the bulk of his ‘official’ solo albums – into some semblance of order in one swoop.

Howe Gelb - Little Sand Box

Howe Gelb – Little Sand Box

Exploring this collection in chronological order leads us first to 1991’s long-lost Dreaded Brown Recluse, perhaps the least ‘solo’ of Gelb’s solo albumsIn response to the strain put upon labels and tour promoters of the time, struggling to market the large quantity of Giant Sand releases at the turn of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Gelb accidentally began his solo career with what is essentially a Giant Sand record in all but name.  Featuring the classic roll-call of John Convertino, Joey Burns and Paula Jean Brown, along with regular guests like Victoria Williams and Rainer Ptacek, Dreaded Brown Recluse is a close relative to contemporary Giant Sand albums like the eclectic Ramp and the noise-splattered Center Of The Universe, with several songs overlapping with both albums in alternate form and others revisited from further Giant Sand/Blacky Ranchette releases.  The result is a record with unhinged charm.  Highlights include the jazz-meets-country reshuffle of “Picture Shows,” the stripped-bare renditions of “Loretta And The Insect World” and “Always Horses Coming,” the rustic rekindling of “Warm Storm,” the enigmatic eccentricity of “Cello In The City” and the meandering Tow Waits-indebted “Bible Black, Book 2.”  A few filler-tracks notwithstanding, Dreaded Brown Recluse is a rough diamond that fans will love (re)discovering.

Shifting band/domestic circumstances and the passing of Gelb’s dearest friend and mentor, Rainer Ptacek, casts a shadow on the largely home-recorded Hisser from 1998, though the album is far from being a dark one-man journey or a throwaway lo-fi experiment.  In fact, although sprawling in length and more introspective in character, the album remains one of Gelb’s warmest and most inventive solo-monikered sets, with crucial but not overpowering guest spots from Grandaddy, John Convertino, Joey Burns, Lisa Germano, Paula Jean Brown and others.  Incorporating beautifully-hushed meditations (such as the spine-tingling “Explore You” and “Soldier Of Fortune”), serene ensemble set-pieces (the elegiac “4 Door Maverick” and the sublime electro-acoustic “This Purple Child”), ruminative piano ballads (“Propulsion”), ambient interludes (“Lull”), cracked classical-meets-jazz passages (“Living On A Waterfall”) and occasional strung-out Crazy Horse prowlers (“Like A Store Front Display”), the hit rate is remarkably high amongst the 23-gathered tracks, making this one of the most desirable Gelb solo releases.

2001’s Confluence originally appeared amidst a prolific but unhappy period for Gelb in the wake of Giant Sand’s acclaimed 2000 opus, Chore Of Enchantment.  With increasing estrangement from Burns and Convertino, due to Calexico commitments, Gelb recorded here, there and everywhere with a wider scattering of players.  Confluence inevitably strains from the growing pains of Gelb learning a less band-orientated existence.  Although it makes for a downbeat and somewhat disjointed affair, it’s not one without merits.  Hence, highpoints arise from the relative murk with the first official and most wistful airing of “Blue Marble Girl,” the desolate “Available Space,” the Beatles-in-a-saloon-bar stomp of “Cold” and the bluesy Billy Preston-meets-Canned Heat rendition of “Hard On Things.”

Howe Gelb - Little Sand Box (unboxed)

Howe Gelb – Little Sand Box (unboxed)

A far more contented and cosmopolitan Gelb emerged on 2003’s The Listener, largely conceived and recorded during a partial relocation from Arizona to Denmark.  With some classy but not over-slick Danish players joining the extended Giant Gelb musical family, The Listener is a largely vocal-and-piano-led LP that deeply explores Gelb’s barroom balladeer persona, with both playfulness and romanticism.  Keeper moments include wry affectionate homages to both Lou Reed (“Felonious”) and Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle (“Jason’s List”); Hispanic-flavoured workouts (“Torque (Tango De La Tongue”) and “Piango”); percussive reveries (“B4 U (Do Do Do)”); and vintage country crooning (with The Handsome Family-assisted “Moons Of Impulse”).

Having being self-reinvigorated by The Listener, for 2006’s ‘Sno Angel Like Angel Gelb took another leap of artistic faith by releasing a secular gospel album, cut adroitly in Canada with the Voices Of Praise Gospel Choir.  Perhaps underrated at the time of original release, ‘Sno Angel Like Angel is one of Gelb’s most transcendental long-players.  Mixing a string of storming originals (such as “Paradise Here Abouts” and “But I Did Not”), reborn again Giant Sand songs (like “Get To Leave” and “Robes Of Bible Black”) and rekindled Rainer songs (most notably “That’s How Things Get Done”), the album soars and soothes in all the right places.  The infectious euphoria spills into the accompanying 2009 sibling live album ‘Sno Angel Winging It, also included here for extra good measure.

Given the majesty of the two gospel-fired discs, 2010’s Alegrías suffers somewhat in comparison.  That’s not to say the album – recorded in Spain with A Band Of Gypsies – lacks some must-hear tracks.  Certainly, a strong set of reworked older nuggets (particularly “Uneven Light Of Day,” “The Hangin’ Judge” and “4 Door Maverick”) work well within the authentic and spirited Spanish re-arrangements but the fresh originals (aside from the intimate delights of “One Diner Town”) perhaps feel a little underdeveloped to hold their own.

Rounding out Little Sand Box, is a compilation entitled Some Piano, gathering a selection of piano-based instrumentals from 2001’s Lull Some Piano, 2004’s Ogle Some Piano, 2008’s Spun Some Piano and 2011’s Snarl Some Piano.  Whilst the individual Piano albums have previously suffered from being a little too dry, drawing together their best bits helps to make sense of Gelb’s bottomless love for sinuous and brooding improvisations from the comforts of a piano stool and with the input of subtle rhythm sections.  Whilst there’s nothing hugely revelatory amongst the 14 tracks of Thelonious Monk-inflected jazz struts, Casablanca soundtrack mood conjuring and reflective classical-shaded contemplations, Some Piano does act as a calming counterpoint to the dizzying array of song-based solo albums that make up the rest of Little Sand Box.

Taken as a whole, Little Sand Box may initially feel a tad overwhelming but in actuality it makes understanding Gelb’s solo records far less arduous due to its curatorial context-setting (which includes bonus tracks and informative sleeve notes). Moreover, it upholds Gelb’s vocation as the sociable solo journeyman as being equal in stature to his role as a veteran band leader.  This year’s most essential boxset then – alongside Lee Hazlewood’s There’s A Dream I’ve Been Saving anthology on Light In The Attic that is – and an absolute must for any long-time or even passing Howe Gelb follower.

Fire Records