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Rediscover:

Howe Gelb

‘Sno Angel Like You

2006

Rediscover is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that have flown under the radar and now deserve a second look.

‘Sno Angel Like You arrived long after the productive days of Howe Gelb’s relatively unnoticed youth, and similarly after critics and listeners finally started to take notice of his rabid attention to stylistic detail and sheer productivity. It’s comprised of songs written by Gelb and recorded earlier for his ongoing Giant Sand outfit, new material and covers of soulful blues tracks. It’s also a collaboration, like much of Gelb’s better-known work, featuring the Voices of Praise choral ensemble acting as a logical foil to Gelb’s traditionally rough style. The 2006 release received favorable reviews and even showed up on vinyl in my local record store. Yet I haven’t met a soul who listens to it regularly. Nor is it commonly mentioned among critics. But it’s not an album that should be so easily forgotten.

But even from the critical standpoint of someone who has enjoyed casually listening to ‘Sno regularly since its release, seen Gelb perform live at the first Forward Music Fest in Wisconsin and followed both Giant Sand and sister-band Calexico with dedicated interest, the album still feels like it has secrets yet to reveal. It’s one of those collections that glides along gracefully with soft and deliberate sounds, often inviting distracted meditation instead of a careful ear and its sound is warm and aged, especially in style, supple as a soul album born of an earlier era.

More so, Gelb’s discography lends an album like ‘Sno a certain deserving wisdom. The aging rocker’s vocals and instrumentation are simple and minimal in folk-country fashion, and are complemented by a rich choral backing full of gospel strength and soulfulness. That style adds hefty weight to twangy ballads and garage fare. It also invites a familiar listener to find nuggets of Giant Sand’s smoky grit and western flavor among these songs’ cavernous spaces and trinkets of wisdom. ‘Sno really plays like a culmination of Gelb’s ideas, tweaked and supplemented over 25 years and about as many albums. Not surprisingly, its sound is seemingly timeless. That’s not to say ‘Sno is necessarily an instant classic – Gelb’s eccentricities aren’t always easy to love – but it does feel like it could have come from any rambling troubadour West of the Mississippi from the last fifty years. This is fitting for a man whose musical explorations are as long and unpredictable as his colorful wordplay.

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In both length and structure ‘Sno is less unique, though not in any way that detracts from the album as a whole. The songs are of typical length – extensive enough to establish hooks and complete Gelb’s thoughts but short enough to not risk flirting with boredom. They’re simple rock ‘n’ roll tracks with equally simple blues hooks. It’s that solid bedrock that makes Gelb’s meditations on other musician’s songs (and his own for that matter) so interesting. The songs play out as one might expect and similarly to their original incarnations, but the guitar jumps in forcefully at jarring times, Gelb lets his vocals trail off and pitch down in mumbling off-key lyrical gestures and the crooning interjections of the Voices of Praise mellow out and smooth Gelb’s intense musical idiosyncrasies while they cast a full-sounding aural glow on otherwise minimalist writing.

From the start Gelb’s weary musings – written by himself and covering the wry poetry of fallen bluesman Rainer Ptacek – don’t matter as much as the way they’re expressed. Gelb’s vocals slink along in a manner that tells its own story, the high points marked by the Voices of Praise and the low by angry squeals of carefully abused guitars. Lyrics are repeated in deliberate harmony by the choir and Gelb himself. His delivery is often gravelly and syncopated, half-sung or intentionally mumbled. Organ and soft guitar twinkles behind the optimistic refrain of “Hey Man,” yet aggressive sounds interject playfully despite any elegant formality the song’s tone suggests. This is a pattern that marks everything Gelb’s ever created. He’s a man out to create music every bit as detailed as a symphony or as expressive as “Tangled Up in Blue” – but do it a way nobody else would think logical. ‘Sno and Giant Sand’s production suggest Gelb sees beauty in the rust and tarnish of entropy, decay and age – less in the pristine creations those forces alter. Like other high points in his career Gelb lets ‘Sno find a balance between simple beauty and natural imperfections, creating a heady and dominant contrast. That may be what prevents him from becoming a more popular musician but it’s unarguably what makes this record so damn special.

For example, the bizarre cant to his vocal delivery in “That’s How Things Get Done” – a playful and lighthearted approach to the message of the song itself, and also a telling dialectical indicator of Gelb’s stomping grounds. In that way, ‘Sno is a love letter to a time, a place, and the sound Giant Sand has always seemed to think pays it homage best. To me, ‘Sno will always feel like a tribute to Gelb’s highly localized Americana, both in theme and stylistic execution.

I can come up with a whole list of valid reasons to not be familiar with Gelb’s Giant Sand output – it’s hard to find, it’s eccentric, it’s geographical or perhaps one just hasn’t even heard of the man. All of those make sense. But looking back at ‘Sno Angel Like You, it’s become an album for those who’ve never had the chance to experience the brain behind that project, one of the forces that got Calexico moving, a creative force who has never settled or stopped sculpting his own unique sound. It’s Gelb’s open letter to the national fanbase he never quite attracted, and suggests everything he’s capable of and all the reasons you – and I should – should give all those dusty records a listen.

by Michael Merline
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