They Might Be Giant

Melding Black Sabbath with the Man in Black: Giant Sand
Bill Carter

I've seen Giant Sand play endlessly inventive shows. At their set in January 2000 at Lounge Ax in Chicago, they played for five or ten minutes before the crowd realized they weren't just tuning up--then onlookers stood rapt for an hour. I've winced through three-quarters of a set that was all redeemed in a moment near its end. More than once I've walked out before that moment arrived.

I've seen Giant Sand perform as a duo, a trio, and--at South by Southwest 2000--as a quartet featuring frontman Howe Gelb and three random guys from Austin who'd never before played together. I've seen them with an upright bass player and with a horn section. On New Year's Eve a year ago, I saw them with a chorus of backup singers that included Sally Timms, Janet Bean, and Neko Case.

I've also seen Giant Sand's bassist and drummer, Joe Burns and John Convertino, play with their side project, Calexico, maybe eight times. The most recent was three months ago, at a little dive in Tempe, Arizona, that sat next door to a porno bookstore and across the street from a port-a-potty distributor. Before that gig, Burns, Convertino, and I sat in their touring van--a chocolate-brown behemoth coated with desert dust from an hourlong trip up from their current hometown of Tucson--and talked about the trio's ambitious experimentalism.

"The songs happen spontaneously," Convertino tells me. "[The key is] catching the telepathy of where Howe's going. We can kind of feel where the changes are going to go, and where the stops are going to be, just from playing together for so long. But he'll always throw a turn in there--and you have to know how to catch those turns before you go flying off a cliff."

In performance as on record, Giant Sand's "style" on any given night might meld postpunk and classic rock, piano jazz, country, Latin folk forms, and even vaudeville. The resulting sound is often a brilliant and unique creation: Waves of fuzzy guitar and feedback crash against one another, dissipate, and reform as a tango, then skitter into a Sinatra standard or a dirty joke. Sometimes it's just cacophonous slop.

"There's a certain audience that can really appreciate the improvisational aspect," Burns says. "But for others I think it's a little harder to grasp. A lot of people want to see Giant Sand perform a second night, or in another city, to see where it's going. I think it's very exciting, engaging, stimulating, too, to watch as well as to play."

It can also be confounding--kind of like Giant Sand's recorded catalog. The new Cover Magazine (Thrill Jockey) is the veteran band's 12th or so studio full-length, but counting is complicated by their clutter of releases, rereleases, tour-only issues, imports, outtakes, and side projects. Among the earlier studio efforts, only 1995's Glum and 2000's Chore of Enchantment are widely available, and maybe as a result they're generally considered the band's best.

As its title implies, Cover Magazine comprises mostly Giant Sand studio versions of songs by other artists, and not surprisingly the track list reads like a collaboration between K-tel and Old Country Buffet. The band makes a medley of Marty Robbins and Neil Young ("El Paso/Out on the Weekend"), and another that marries a traditional ballad to one of Ol' Blue Eyes' ("Wayfaring Stranger/ Fly Me to the Moon"). Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" almost rubs elbows with the Man in Black ("I'm Leaving Now"). Gelb gets his gloom fix with Nick Cave's "Red Right Hand" and PJ Harvey's "Plants and Rags," and Polly Jean herself shares vocal duties on X's "Johnny Hit and Run Pauline." Then there are takes on tunes by Roger Miller ("King of the Road"), Sonny and Cher ("The Beat Goes On"), Goldfrapp ("Human"/ "Lovely Head"), and late Giant Sand pal Rainer Ptacek ("The Inner Flame"), plus a nine-minute live revision of Gelb's own "Blue Marble Girl," abetted by members of Grandaddy.

The morning after that Calexico show in Tempe, I rode down to Tucson to visit with Gelb. There I saw him perform in yet another outfit--this time jamming with a Latin jazz group in a half-filled coffee bar--and asked him about those scattershot cover songs.

"The songs chose themselves," he says, grinning. He explains that, like the band's improvisational bent onstage, the anything-goes method of song selection reflects Giant Sand's guiding principles. "It all comes down to those basic truths," Gelb says. "One is that the trip, not the destination, is the focus. Another is to realize that the songs are in you--you just have to get them out."

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