Giant Giant Sand: Tucson (Fire/Southbound)

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Giant Giant Sand: Hard Morning in a Soft Blur
Giant Giant Sand: Tucson (Fire/Southbound)

Sounding like a dust-driven Leonard Cohen and/or Elvis and/or Neil Young who has walked out of the desert, the prolific and always interesting Howe Gelb here appears under yet another moniker.

His longtime Giant Sand ensemble is expanded for this "country rock opera" to become, appropriately, Giant Giant Sand. 

What that means is Tijuana trumpets alongside Johnny Cash guitar twang, Maggie Bjorklund on pedal steel and string players. And this broad but discreetly deployed musical palette gives a sense of emotional and narrative scope to an album which hooks you in via Gelb's sand parched, up-close vocals.

giantsand_tuscon_treatment2_gallery_primaryPlayed out with Biblical import, this is the story of a "man boy" who abandons his life and wordly goods to head into the borderland to search for meaning.

The story isn't without dry humour and the songs, although part of a larger arc, also stand on their own while characters come and go, and sometimes reappear as themselves in another form.

It's not as complex as it sounds -- in fact it flows by as a series of enticingly dark alt.country and weightless ballads probing the nature of existence -- and the accompanying booklet lays it out like a film script-cum-theatre production.

giantsand_tuscon_treatment3_gallery_primaryGelb's slightly wounded and weary baritone (echoed to give a sense of the widescreen landscape which the album's title evokes) carries the metaphorical narrative and the music, which subtly refers to Fifties rock'n'roll as much as Tex-Mex and cumbia, is uncluttered.

And guest singer Brian Lopez delivers his gorgeous Love Comes Over You in one of those angelic quivers like Antony Hegarty which is neatly counterpointed by Gelb's Cash-like Things Like That which follows.

So although this is a narrative-driven album which you can read along to, you can also drop in and out of and take songs as discrete entities (Gabriel Sullivan sounding like a less extreme Tom Waits on The Sun Belongs to You).

Gelb has always thought in the bigger picture but his last album, the Spanish-influnced Alegrias, and this show him an artist really hitting his straps.

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