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Howe Gelb

Howe Gelb has a gift for fashioning adventure out of fleeting small notions. He's learned to trust a whim, or, rather, he somehow succeeded in fending off whatever forces drive that instinct out of the rest of us in late childhood. His ever-present wit is wry, if not cynical, and his lyrics reveal a bittersweet adult bemusement. But his approach to music belies an almost innocent, if not quite reckless, confidence: Try anything; mistakes will be made, and that could be a very good thing.

The sheer volume of his discography alone demonstrates Gelb's disinclination to labor endlessly over a piece of music. His work is often exactly as spontaneous as it sounds, and songs seem to emerge by serendipity. The Listener, though, is a remarkably detailed and painstaking assemblage of players and ideas. It's the novel product of a lengthy transplantation from his Tucson comfort zone, when Gelb and his family spent the spring and summer of 2002 in Denmark. As much as he's toured in Europe, the more extended Old World experience apparently opened a new world of inspiration. He struck his cowboy boots down cobblestone streets (an image from his song "Cowboy Boots") in daily walks with his then-3-year-old son, and struck up collaborations with local musicians who inspired him in weekly performances at a local club. Some of these are featured on Listener's original tracks, recorded in one day in a Denmark studio. Later contributors in Tucson included Giant Sand cohorts John Convertino and Joey Burns, as well as Nick Luca and Brett and Rennie Sparks of The Handsome Family.

Listener opens with something like an invitation. The genteel, intimate, cocktail-improv "Glisten" puts you on notice that for this record, you should probably light some candles, pour a glass of wine and draw a nice hot bath. Track two is the Tom Waits/Vic Chesnut-like "Felonious," an almost Zen-contemplative lyric observation that although there may be light at the end of the tunnel, "you can't run toward it" because the tunnel is, alas, much too small.

Perking up the pace are three easy-going Cubanismo-Norteno-tinged pieces, including "Cowboy Boots" and "b 4 u (do-do-do)," an inventively deconstructed semi-cover of Bill Withers' "Lean on Me," featuring the only angst-driven, if muted, rock guitar solos on the record. "Blood Orange" features Henriette Sennenvaldt's infectiously expressive Danish vocals in a Mexican borderlands desert vibe. "Moons of Impulse" starts out a hokey, funny country tune, morphs into a gorgeous, loping electro break and ends with a piano non-sequitur.

The influence of having his children nearby comes through on "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep," which blesses even the "chickens, the turtles, the dogs and the house of blue," before turning dark over an argument between parents. The final track, "Lemmy n Emmy," is a bittersweet love story on soulful synth strings, punctuated by random electronic pulses. It could be the lullaby ending to this tale of two continents, a bedtime story that rewards the listener who takes the time to appreciate the detail with which it's told.

More by Linda Ray

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