Howe: The Listener

The Listener
Thrill Jockey

If your only knowledge of the artistic process comes from the Biography channel, you might think there are only two options for creative souls seeking longevity in the music business. One is to flame out spectacularly at a young, photogenic age (make sure your relatives keep your image in the public eye, though). The other is to drag your carcass through decades of falling fortunes, broken hearts, and low record sales, until you're finally redeemed when your music is featured prominently in an automobile ad. There's universality to these paths that anyone who picks up a guitar can relate to. But like one-size-fits-all pantyhose, the standard template adheres to some folks better than others.

For singer/guitarist Howe Gelb, the mess of making music is the story. Even with his history condensed and codified (we suggest tracking down a copy of Magnet issue #45 for help), the records he made with Giant Sand are still scattered over a dozen labels and feature three times that many guest musicians. The single consistent thread through these releases (which range from straight country albums to haphazard epics larded with electronics) is Gelb's scratchy, half-spoken, conspiratorial rasp. While the music of the whole Giant Sand/Gelb solo collective is most concretely rooted in Bob Dylan and Neil Young, there's a loose, free-associative quality to it that's more akin to a jazz or improvisational prog band with good chemistry. It can be great. It can be painful. But it's never false.

The Listener thankfully falls into the first category. The bi-continental cast, hailing from Denmark and Arizona, creates a relaxed, but not sloppy, feel. Tangos sit side by side with Tex-Mex ballads infused with wistful Marty Robbins-style flourishes. Gelb largely lays down his guitar and focuses on the electric piano on the near trip-hoppy "Glisten," and the sly, sumptuous torch song "Jason's List." And no matter where he is, Gelb always manages to carry a vivid sense of place in his songs: a rainstorm blows through the desert so quickly it's "only a rumor," a sunset turns the sky ruby red. Even better is when he gets cosmic. "There are two moons to Planet Impulse," he sings. "They are failure and regret." Spoken like someone who has spent plenty of time down on Impulse's surface, pondering the night sky.

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