NEARLY 20 ALBUMS into a determinedly low-profile career, Arizona's Giant Sand and their raw desert rock would seem to be a fairly known quantity. Not, apparently, to the folks at V2 Records, however, who signed Howe Gelb and Co. a year ago, forked over recording expenses, and then deemed the results "too indie." In stepped Thrill Jockey to save the day, releasing an album that nicely bridges the quirkily experimental guitar rock and bare-bones country that the Chicago label generally stocks.
Regardless of how Chore of Enchantment may have sounded in the V2 boardroom, it's actually the most carefully crafted Giant Sand record to date. No living-room recordings or lo-fi outtakes here: Gelb and a cadre of producers seem to have devoted a good deal of attention to shaping his soundscape, adding keys, disembodied female voices, strange percussion, strings, opera samples, and loops to the usual shuffling drums, organs, and sleepwalking guitars. But while "X-tra Wide" and "Temptation of Egg" show a skewed pop sensibility, a good chunk of Chore still sounds as haphazard and ragged as old times.
As always, the defining quality is Gelb's croak--arid and deadpan, but versatile enough to pass off a gracious observation like "you astonish me" before plunging into a darker lyrical passage. Gelb doesn't shy away from assuming different vocal guises, some of which contrast sharply with his musical arrangements. "Shiver" is a lap-steel-keyed ode to the desert, but Gelb sings it with an urbane Leonard Cohen subtlety, while "Bottom Line Man" finds him playing piano-bar poet to the hilt.
Chorerepresents more than a year of work in the dusty notebook of Giant Sand. Gelb says that for a time he was too close to the death of longtime collaborator Rainer Ptacek to construe a full-length. As a result, singer/guitarist Gelb, bassist Joe Burns, and drummer John Convertino (who work separately as Calexico) recorded in several sessions in Tucson, Memphis, and New York. These sporadic birthing contractions give Chore the feel of having several distinct chapters--a sense that Giant Sand managed to find occasional wonders in their wanderings.
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