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Tucson Weekly Sand Man

Howe Gelb Strikes Again!

By Fred Mills

NOVEMBER 9, 1998: 


Ow Om/V2

WHEN I TOLD a friend, who is definitely not a Giant Sand fan, that I was gonna give Gelb's solo rec the ol' four-star "classic" award, he looked at me like I'd lost my mind. "Giant Sand's dense enough," he claimed, "and Hisser is just about impenetrable."

"Caliche rock," I shot bayself, hmm, I got a hook. On the surface, the record is deceptively frugal, a moderately lo-fi, stylistically open-minded ramble through Mr. Gelb's neighborhood (it was recorded in the front room of his barrio digs) with lots of familiar faces waving at you from the other side of their hedges: Winston, Paula Jean, Joey, John, Sofie, Patsy...hey, there's Lisa Germano!

But as my friend suggested, it's not an "easy" listen in the traditional sense. Exactly why I like it. Dig a few feet below the surface and you may find yourself needing a good pick, chipping away at little fragments like the 1-1/2 minute piano noodler "Living On A Waterfall" or a creepy theremin-and-guitar experiment appropriately titled "Thereminender." But hang in there, take a breather if you need, and keep at it--you'll sculpt out big chunks of unerringly melodic, bordering-on-anthemic folk-rock ("This Purple Child"), sweet textured country blues (the pedal steel-informed "Explore You") and, my favorite, a resilient number called "Propulsion" that adds a left-channel passing freight train to the piano-bass-drums arrangement. Pure Gelb, pure Giant Sand, pure Old Pueblo.

Interestingly, included with this disc's promotional notes are some hand-scrawled comments from Gelb in which he relates enduring a monster Pennsylvania flood back in '72. He eventually wound up in Tucson--"a good place to avoid another flood," quips Gelb. A quarter-century later, the emotional floodwaters rose with equal devastation as he helplessly watched his best friend Rainer be swept away by cancer. I don't think this record is to be taken as a chronicle of that point in time; I hear it more as a part-memorial, part-exorcism. Intensely personal (especially in the lyric department) and at times harrowing, but absolutely life-affirming, Hisser is one of those rare, bare-bones works of art that demands of the listener--as it did of its creator--that you surrender to the muse and to the moment.

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