Release Date: Nov 5, 2013
Record label: New West
From his production on the latest KT Tunstall album to his own efforts throughout The Coincidentalist, Howe Gelb has cemented his position as a master of manipulating a desert’s atmosphere into a sonic whole. It’s not as if the Arizona outback hasn’t acted as both inspiration and thematic through-line for previous Gelb works, solo and with his band Giant Sand. But the torrid, languid, gritty tones of Tuscon—as a lyrical set piece as well as an active, ire-filled ambient swell—so overwhelm Gelb’s every spiritual and physical inch, it’s as if sand and silt oozes from his pores on moments such as “Vortexas” and, most hauntingly, “An Extended Plane of Existence.
Howe Gelb's latest album is constantly in the process of gelling. The Giant Sand songwriter, pianist and guitarist often lingers in barroom jazz piano or experimental territory for a while before returning to something more familiar. Say, late-period Neil Young-style folk rock or alt-country. The philosophical lyrics are rooted in the past and full of funny wordplay.
The Coincidentalist is Howe Gelb's first solo album since 2011's Alegrias, and his debut for New West Records. In 2012, his ever-evolving Giant Sand issued the sprawling "country rock opera" Tucson, which marked his return to the desert after spending most of the previous decade in Denmark. Self-produced, The Coincidentalist is a mostly low-key affair with a stellar mix by John Parish.
Given the frequency of his releases, it's easy to look at Howe Gelb's catalogue as a work-in-progress, with each album offering merely a glimpse into his state of mind at the time tape was rolling. However, from The Coincidentalist's opening track, "Vortexas," a duet with Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, it's clear that this record brims with everything that's made Gelb a desert rock guru since the formation of Giant Sand over 30 years ago. Mostly, it's in the hazy, reverb-laden sonic foundation, which accentuates Gelb's eclectic arrangements and ultra-dry vocal delivery.
Music publicist and websites often use the acronym RIYL to push their artists. It stands for Recommended if You Like and is frequently employed in ridiculous ways, comparing any four piece rock group to the Beatles, female blues artist to Janis Joplin, or electronic band to Radiohead. The promotional download of this disc did not come with any information, but if it did, the material could honestly say “RIYL Leonard Cohen”.
Giant Sand’s mainman is nothing if not prolific. Since the first Giant Sand album was released in 1985, he’s recorded, with that group, as a solo artist, or in some other guise, in the region of 50 full-length records. The Coincidentalist comes mere months after his previous solo effort (April’s Dust Bowl) and a year or so after the last Giant Sand album.
Those who prefer being able to know in advance what to expect when it comes to new music by an old favorite can’t help but be confounded by an iconoclastic artist like Howe Gelb. Over the past 30 plus years, Gelb’s morphed through various incarnations – Giant Sand, Giant Giant Sand, The Band of Blackie Ranchette and several assorted solo mutations – and created a sprawling soundscape rooted in the dusty desert psychedelia of his native Tucson and tempered by roots, jazz, punk, gospel and styles from south of the border. It’s a mesh that Gelb’s dubbed “erosion rock,” and it’s as eclectic as it comes.