Howe Gelb has a work ethic that would shame even Mark E Smith. His discography that is a complex and wide ranging as an FBI file on TonySoprano. His work with Giant Sand stretches back as far as 1985 but that’s just scratching the surface.
His many side projects have included the full on country of The Band of Blacky Ranchette, his collaboration with Lisa Germano, OP8 and the loose collective of Arizona Amp and Alternator. Somehow amongst all of this he has also managed to release a series of solo LPs.
‘Sno Angel Like You is Gelb’s attempt to blend his parched ragged country with the lithe and stunning tones of Canada’s Voices of Praise Gospel Choir. Now gospel choirs, together with string sections and albums made up of cover versions, form the unholy trinity of the creatively bankrupt. Like a musical mid-life crisis the heavy use of any of them tends to signal an artist running on empty.
Thankfully such fears are misplaced here. Gelb has forsaken the cliched sweeping gospel crescendos, opting instead for a more unassuming take on the ‘Lord’s’ music. His bone dry, rattle snake rasp provides a stark and affecting counterpoint to the smooth honeyed tones of the choir. Gelb’s songs are malleable enough to fit into both the alt.country and gospel genre without revealing the join and the material here doesn’t sound glued together but fluid and natural.
The guitar sounds are archetypal Giant Sand. The blend of arid acoustics and corrosive electrics provide earthbound resistance to the heavenly backing vocals. The guitar chords that rip through That’s How Things Get Done sound like a rusty barbwire electric fence in a rainstorm. It’s the shambolic glory of Neil Young and Crazy Horse in full flow.
Hey Man is a boxcart waltz with reverb soaked drums, while But I Did Not mimics the call and response of classic gospel and paints it across a loose country rhythm. Gelb’s edgy guitar playing and the talk of “bone yard hounds a barking” place it somewhere between Tom Waits‘ junkyard muse and Jim White‘s religious revelations.
The two styles coalesce immaculately on Worried Spirits. The riff is like a blazing wasp’s nest. Arcade Fire‘s Jeremy Gilbert’s drumming is like a nightmare in stereo, all fervent drum fills and clanking bass thumps. Gelb’s vocals are a dry husk lost in the night. The gospel vocals usher in the relief of a spring dawn. Salvation found in the morning light. Whatever gets you through the night.
The ground covered here by Gelb is not entirely new. You can here the influence of fellow country soul travellers Lambchop in the half spoken vocals of Nail In The Sky. The secular nature of the lyrics also echo Jenny Lewis and The Watson Twins‘ recent Rabbit Fur Coat. This should not distract from what is a wonderful record. Gelb has produced his most focused work in ages. If you need a little bit of heaven encased in a corroded tin box then this is for you.