News Giant Sand - Blurry Blue Mountain

The album feels live – in the ripple of goosebumps kind of way.

For their twenty-fifth year in the business of making music, what better way to commemorate than for Howe Gelb’s troupe of American roots faithful to release their 25th long player? Yes, an astonishing collection of albums lie behind this Tucson-based artist – a cumulative breadcrumb trail of where many of the US’s most lauded found their way – and yet for all this prolificness, it seems a shame Gelb hasn’t quite enjoyed the abundance of fruit from his labours.

But, alas, what is probably a greater majority of popular music’s 25 year partial ignorance is to our gain; for it feels like a great secret to uncover if you come to ‘Blurry Blue Mountain’ as the first Giant Sand album. The richness in the arrangements almost works to bypass Gelb’s frequently singed Cohen tones, allowed to growl at it’s deepest pitches for the ballad-type songs such as ‘Spell Bound’ and ‘Chunk of Coal’. Both lightly drizzled with staunch piano, although the former is more playful, looser and with brush saloon snare. The latter, even more of a plodder suitably acknowledges it’s familiar story – the man made good by his woman – with the lyric “this story’s been told a thousand times, but it never gets old, you don’t miss your water ‘til your well runs dry”. And there be a few of these.

With an apt skill of rolling in the landscape, a harsh desert wind seems to blow over ‘Ride The Rail’, a more skiffled tale of the Molly Maguires and seemingly philandering males, halfway across the States from our narrators, which even sees a ramshackle-sounding choir joining in. The pace is helped along, locomotion style, by way of steel guitars and a non-committal repeat strike of the snares. With a similar set up, but distinctly more personal theme, ‘Fields of Green’ gives rise to Gelb the figurehead – and the notion that, as he ages, others will follow his examples: “I instruct them to be so quiet for just a while, and give their heart a good listen”. After all, Giant Sand have – by fate you feel, rather than an obvious choice – become a cult group, and to that end more trusted luminaries for Americana roots music.

Fortunately falling between the southern crosswind heat and balladeering ivories, Giant Sand shake things up with the more Bad Seeds side of their threat, the rollicking ‘Thin Line Man’. There’s also the reflections and skuzz of ‘Monk’s Mountain’ to contend with, that show GS have mettle as well as mind in the music.

There are a few unexpected tracks, however, that give Blurry Blue Mountain that hint at deeper luxuries the group could afford to explore in the future. The gorgeously thick quartet of strings draped over and weaved through ‘The Last One’ at first act to disjoin the song with a hefty intro, not so much melting as splashing into acoustic guitar pluckings, by way of a sharp cymbal. Yet as they spread further into the track, elongated lines of string harmony, merging with lapsteel, make the under-played sentiment swell beautifully.

Alternatively there’s the aggressor Gelb on ‘Brand New Swamp Thing’, which sounds like calamity blues if ever you heard. Wonderfully loose and with soulful singing guitars (even if his voice lacks the same sense of tuning) the track rolls on more back-to-basics roots, its lyrics intentionally a bit improv. Then there’s the miss-matched ‘Lucky Star Love’, a country-varnished duet with Lorna Kenny, but all the more enjoyable because of her smoothness against his sharp. The roll of piano back-and-forth arpeggios makes the flavour quite innocent, despite the ingrained wisdom of the pair’s vocals.

Ultimately, what is most endearing about ‘Blurry Blue Mountain’, is what seemingly hides itself in the spaces between instruments until the final track ‘Love A Loser’. The album feels live – in the ripple of goosebumps kind of way – the tap of keys on the piano, the breaths across the microphone, the half-murmur of this particular track’s opening, are all there to be heard. These all seek to draw you into their shambolic world. And what a thrilling place that seems if these 14 tracks are anything to go by: especially as there are another 24 nuggets waiting out back to be discovered.

Tags: Giant Sand, Reviews, Album Reviews

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