Gathered is Howe Gelb’s third solo album in as many years during which time he’s also released an album under the Giant Sand name, the musical collective he has led since the mid-1980s. In short, he’s very prolific. He’s also increasingly in the habit of using his solo records as a vehicle to experiment and stray from familiar paths.
This became especially noticeable on 2016’s Future Standards and it’s 2017 follow up Further Standards both of which saw Gelb explore a late-night, jazz-inflected sound. Giant Sand may very much remain an enduring Americana/guitar focused project but his solo work continues to see him adopt looser arrangements and aesthetics.
This wouldn’t necessarily be the opinion formed on listening to opening track On The Fence which sees Gelb reprise much of the lowly-intoned, unhurried alt.country musicianship he’s become most associated with over the years. An atmospheric cover of Leonard Cohen’s A Thousand Kisses Deep, featuring fellow troubadour M. Ward is the first of several collaborations on the album and sticks to a tested formula but then the album begins to open up and evolve. Not The End Of The World is a jazz-coloured duet with actress and singer Anna Karina and comes replete with sax accents and brushed percussion. Similar notes are struck on Presumptuous which sees Danish singer Kira Skov add smoky vocals around a leisurely piano backdrop. A cover of Moon River with Gelb’s daughter Talula on vocals may maintain the jazz piano feel but unfortunately feels a little superfluous. My Little World and Storyteller are cut from similar cloth, with both struggling to make much of a lasting impact. On the flipside, All You Need To Know has a swinging, louche feel and is all the more memorable for it.
Anna and The Open Road may be brief instrumentals but are more interesting and ironically have a clearer definition and stronger sense of purpose. The Park At Dark and Steadfast see Gelb more in narrator-mode and, etched out from the barest of components, also fare better. The title track meanwhile sees Gelb do what he does best – sweet yet exposed, country-centred songwriting (this time with the help of Iowa folk artist Pieta Brown).
Gathered is very much an album that needs time and attention to allow its strengths be isolated and to surface. Long term Gelb fans will appreciate his continued work rate, the extension of musical themes and hints at his past but overall it may be too slight and unprepossessing for the casual, passing listener.