Why Howe?

Giant Sand
Original Release: 1987

Howe Gelb is a genius. Why does it seem that so few have noticed?

Maybe they have. Or maybe the 25th-year reissues of the earliest Giant Sand records will change that. But I’m not holding my breath. What I am going to do is revisit the first Gelb/Sand record I ever heard in the hopes it piques some interest.

Let’ s start with a memory trick. I’m pretty good with when things happened so I’d swear to you that  Storm was released in 1986. But Gelb himself says it was 1987 and so I defer. My certainty is rooted in where I was–in limbo, basically, between Nassau County and Manhattan. You haven’t experienced cognitive dissonance until you’ve split your time between the place you least want to be and the place you do but can’t possibly afford.

And so, as always, I solaced myself with books and records. The latter were much harder to come by on Long Island despite the proximity to New York. That requires some clarification. There were plenty of places to buy mainstream music. What there was a distinct lack of were the quirky, punky shops, like the one in High Fidelity, offering offbeat choices and 2nd-hand inventory. Long Island can be a particularly insular place and so the absence of such may not have been noted by the masses.

But there were some and I somehow discovered Slipped Disc Records in Valley Stream. Nothing about the store stands out in memory as making it much different from others like it. I just remember standing at the bins, flipping through the inventory. And then this record,  Storm,  came on.

I’m always aware of any music that’s playing–never before heard songs that leap out are how I discover new artists. So there I stood and a new record came on. Somewhere during the first tune I became aware of a voice warbling “burns the uneven light of day” (or something damned close) punctuated by a burst of piercing guitar. The next song was musically calmer but lyrically intense: “this is a town/where no town belongs/this is an accident/done deliberately.” By the third number, just a voice and an electric guitar, I was hooked. “Close to the jagged edge” indeed. Thrifty fellow that I was (and am) I didn’t buy the record new that day. I acquired it soon after at one of the joints on St. Mark’s Place with deeper used inventory.

So why do I say Gelb is a genius? First, exquisite taste. On Storm that’s evidenced by a cover of The Weight. Pure punks will groan but The Band had some great songs and the song is the thing–not the posturing, which punks are well capable of themselves. Some might say this is a left-handed way of making a comparison. Gelb has one of those idiosyncratic voices that, if you like it and are so inclined, you’ll describe as Dylanesque. Or you’ll get rapturous about Leonard Cohen. Back to taste, Giant Sand also covered X‘s “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline” on their album of covers, Cover Magazine, along with Marty Robbins’ El Paso and Sonny and Cher‘s The Beat Goes On.

Second, place. Gelb is as rooted in Arizona as Jonathan Richman is in New England. Too often we hear about the genius from the provinces making his or her pilgrimage to the big city–New York, LA, Nashville. What I’m talking about is different from a scene, like Seattle in the grunge years or Minneapolis in the mid to late 80s. I’m talking about place being integral to the music. Town Where no Town Belongs is Gelb’s New England or did you forget this couplet: “I have seen old Israel’s arid plain/it’s nice, but, so’s Maine.” Rootedness is underrated in my book.

Third, Gelb’s been brave enough to assemble a band that just spewed forth talent. Modern Lovers fans will know that the original line-up of Jonathan’s band included David Robinson who joined The Cars and Jerry Harrison later of Talking Heads. Giant Sand’s original rhythm section started Calexico as a side project (it later grew too big to be such). And everyone with bona fides plays with Gelb: Nekko Case, Vic Chestnutt, PJ Harvey.

Get your ears on Storm or any other Giant Sand record. It’s worth the highest accolade I ever bestow: great stuff.

Bonus: Here’s a latter day rendition by Gelb of Uneven Light of Day.


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