For a guy who always seems to move slowly and deliberately, Howe Gelb sure gets around this old world, creating and re-creating himself with a shifting cast of cohorts and collaborators that befits a restless creative spirit.
Case in point: these two new releases (three, counting the reissue). Recorded largely in Spain (as well as Denmark and the United Kingdom) with the Cordoba, Spain-based combo A Band of Gypsies as Gelb's collaborators, Alegrias is instant classic Howe, every bit as adept and satisfying as his relatively recent high-water marks 'Sno Angel Like You and Arizona Amp and Alternator.
A Band of Gypsies (featuring the flamenco wizard Raimundo Amador on several tracks) prove to be ideal collaborators, providing a shifting backdrop of Latin ambience that includes variations on Gypsy, flamenco and more-contemporary Spanish music. Sometimes sparse, sometimes lush and always perfectly in sync, this crew and Gelb mesh like old friends trading stories around the bar.
Alegrias features re-recordings of previously released Giant Sand/Howe Gelb songs, including standout tracks "Cowboy Boots on Cobble Stone" ("Cowboy boots on cobblestone / I walk around like I own this town") and "The Hangin' Judge" ("If you ain't the hanging judge / who are you? / If you ain't the new Dylan / who are you?"). The stripped-down, simple sophistication of the arrangements, the warm recording technology (it was co-produced by Gelb and Fernando Vacas) and the overall simpatico of the whole project make this one of Gelb's best collaborations.
This is, nonetheless definitely a Howe Gelb record. Even with the sympathetic backup, the whirls and tweaks and lyrical pratfalls of a song like "Saint Conformity" ("She went from a small-town looker / to dressing like a myopic optimistic hooker") and Gelb's dusty desert sage persona (as well as the bottom end provided by long-time Giant Sand bass player Thøger Lund) keep Alegrias firmly in the Howe Gelb canon.
Meanwhile, Fire Records celebrates Giant Sand's quarter-century mark with a set that includes a new Giant Sand record and a reissue of their debut record, Valley of Rain. On Valley of Rain, Giant Sand sounds simultaneously like a band fully formed and still finding its identity: It's all there, just not fully in focus yet.
On the other hand, Blurry Blue Mountain—recorded with the stable version of Giant Sand that Gelb's had for years now (Lund, Anders Pedersen, Peter Dombernow-sky and Nikolaj Heyman)—is a terrific new collection that cycles through various permutations of soft, loud, pensive and questing; there's cryptic wordplay, bare-bones emoting and desert squall. But it's fully coherent and clearly all cut from the same cloth, and tracks like the loping, autobiographical opener "Fields of Green"; the epic, Neil Young-ish "Monk's Mountain"; and the barroom knockoff "Lucky Star Love" (featuring Lonna Kelley from Phoenix on vocals) ably represent different facets of the Giant Sand state of mind.