Giant Sand proVISIONS

[Yep Roc; 2008]

Styles: singer-songwriter, experimental pop/rock
Others: Tindersticks, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, Lambchop

"Ready to Roll..." caws Howe Gelb just an instant before M. Ward and Giant Sand kicks up "Can Do," the third track off his umpteenth release proVISIONS. Surficially, it's another off-the cuff remark he's been known to provide in droves, but it also sums up the MO of someone who's been effortlessly cranking out product after quality product for over 20 years now. And to anyone who's been following Gelb, it comes as no surprise that proVISIONS is another delight of warped americana.

Whatever Gelb deems worthy of the Giant Sand stamp (don't get me started on the myriad of side-projects and solo releases) has always been his call, so if you feel that previous Sand albums offer proVISIONS a point of reference, forget it. For what it's worth, the same great backing band that showed up on 2004's All Over the Map is used again, in addition to guest appearances by Neko Case and M. Ward, but the most effective counterpart is Isobel Campbell whose breathy vocal tradeoffs and harmonies provide a nice damper for Gelb's own rusty pipes. On the standout opener "Stranded Pearl" and throughout the album, Campbell sounds like the only thing holding him together, as I've never heard Gelb sound so down before, ever.

Though proVISIONS offers some playfully charming moments, ("Can Do," "Out There," "Increment of Love"), the dark center of this album's middle is telling. "Spiral" is Gelb's entry for the anti-hope piano ballad of the year, a sort of "Fuck it" to Tom Waits' "Hold On." Asking many questions with no answers, the defeat of "Spiral" ("Sure its getting hotter/ And the waters on the rise/ Don't wanna live forever/ But another generation would be nice") is just plain heartbreaking. Following that track is the creeping "Pitch and Sway," which offers just one answer -- a price on the head of a certain world leader ("He's been in command for so long now/ He's taking leave of his senses/ There's a hunch there itching/ He figures it's time to forget/ He's not gonna scratch it/ He's gonna live to regret it") in a mantra-like prayer for bad karma. "Muck Machine" finishes the dark triad with more nihilism, but at least Gelb gives the zombies something to dance to.

Anyone on board with Gelb up to this point is aware of his quirks, and those very quirks led him to nix the inclusion of the roughly nine-minute "The New Romance of Falling" and replacing it with the much shorter and less effective "Bellyfull of Fire." It's an odd move considering what a delight "Falling" is. Loose and open, "Falling" is the sound Gelb (with Isobell Campbell in tow) having a true Lou Reed moment, and alone would have been well worth the price of admission (fortunately, the track is available as a free download with the purchase of the album). After another pair of admittedly half-baked tracks, the patchwork "Saturated Beyond Repair" and the false ending of "World's End State Park," Gelb leaves us with the lighthearted closer "Well Enough Alone," perhaps a final thought for us to put the razor blades safely away. It sure hurts to hear him breaking down, and although its sobering to have a mirror of our own pain, a world without Giant Sand is one most would not want.

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