Giant Giant Sand – Tucson

‘Tucson’ feels life an afterthought, lacking in the kinetic intensity and corrosive experimentalism of earlier releases.

Label: Fire Records

Rating: 5

The mercurial Howe Gelb has been fronting alt-country legends Giant Sand for over twenty five years, steering the band through myriad line-ups and dalliances with Americana, desert rock and avant-garde noise. In the meantime, Gelb’s rhythm section mutated into Calexico while the man himself had a hand in shaping the careers of Grandaddy and M Ward. The current line-up has been massively expanded to incorporate twelve members, six from the bands hometown of Tucson, Arizona and six from Denmark, where Gelb currently resides.

Renaming the band Giant Giant Sand to incorporate the swelling of ranks, Tucson is a sprawling album, steeped in old time country workouts with mariachi flourishes and – usually – Gelb’s timeworn, husky drawl. This works best on the likes of the half-spoken Slag Heap, a languid shuffle which initially threatens to collapse beneath its casual approach before picking up brass and shards to guide it on its way. Similarly, Caranito is a playful jaunt through Mexican country pop while We Don’t Play Tonight is gentle shimmy replete with percussive stabs and charming male-female harmonies.

However, this lounge lizard approach to what ostensibly is a concept album about ‘a semi grizzled man with overt boyish naiveté’ occasionally lapses into needless indulgence and often becomes tangled in a mire of loose ends. The band are most suited to Gelb on vocals and when he demarcates duties – ‘The Sun Belongs To You’ – the songs suffer as a result. Giant Giant Sand are capable of much more – Gelb is a fine songwriter, storyteller and collaborator but at times, ‘Tucson’ feels life an afterthought, lacking in the kinetic intensity and corrosive experimentalism of earlier releases.