Howe Gelb ‘Sno Angel Like You

[Thrill Jockey; 2006]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: blues, singer-songwriter, country, gospel, soul
Others: Smog, M. Ward, Uncle Tupelo, Hayden

Hey-Ho. Riding on a shambolic, bucolic, rustic, shuffling, scrappy, bible-belted choo-choo moonbelly light romp. Got the clichés out of the way, then.

'Sno Angel Like You is another in a long line of solo records by Giant Sand fixture Howe Gelb, with the distinction of utilizing a gospel choir on pretty much all of the tracks. Gelb was told to "keep it positive" by the choir director, so this is dusty semi-sarcastic hard-luck balladry, with a touch of uplift. The occasionally off-key, unassuming semi-mumble of Gelb's voice contrasts marvelously with the trained, primed-for-transcendence-quality singing of Voices of Praise. It's the sound of the jaded and the joyous resolves ascending to some kind, if a smidgen unorthodox, harmonies.

The album's uplift, aside from the angelic harmonies, comes from a resolute sort of reluctance on Gelb's part to temper some of his unblinking, but endearing bitterness and the Cave-style dark themes of man's eternal duality. The lines "Felt like burning down the home, felt like buying me a gun" are echoed with an affirmative "But I Did Not" in the song by the same name. Gelb's not letting go of his dyspeptic view of life, but he seems to be building a bridge between what devotion he's acquired through years and years of making music and the religious devotion of the Voices of Praise. One senses the respect he gives his accompanists pays off beautifully with how deeply they allow themselves to engage with the material. The odd juxtaposition may seem like a gimmick on paper, but when you listen, Howe and VOP's music makes a satisfying, plaintive kind of sense.

The songs that seem to fare best are the ones that utilize the sparse overall instrumentation of the record to keep things feeling loose and slightly edgy. Both "Nail in the Sky" and "Love Knows (No Borders)" are really lovely in their use of space, so that when the lush female vocals come in, it feels as decidedly off as it does perfect for the arrangement. The fuzzy, tossed-off sounding instrumental interlude "The Voice Within" shows how, more developed perhaps, some instrumentals might've given the album a little added depth. "Hey Man" has some great lyrics about how our younger selves oughta shoulder some of the more difficult tasks life has to offer to give our older selves a break. It's pretty cool that the closest Gelb comes to preaching on this record is to himself.

So, what we've got here is a smart, likable song writer who's been at it for a good long while now making a pretty fun, unpredictable-feeling (love that sudden saloon piano in "Robes of Bible Black") LP with little frills and soul enough. His singing fares better on some tracks (some moments) than others, but it's nothing that'll derail your enjoyment of the record. It'd help somewhat if you weren't averse to gospel music. But Rattle & Hum (though I admittedly like that record) this is not. If you like Gelb, chances are you'll like this. While nothing wholly spectacular, 'Sno Angel is no less an exceptional effort from a charmingly earnest, yet still somewhat self-conscious, lyricist and singer.

1. Get To Leave
2. Paradise Here Abouts
3. But I Did Not
4. Hey Man
5. The Farm
6. That's How Things Get Done
7. Love Knows (No Borders)
8. The Voice Within
9. Nail in the Sky
10. Howlin' A Gale
11. Robes of Bible Black
12. Worried Spirits
13. Neon Filler
14. Chore of Enchantment

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