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Giant Giant Sand

Tucson (Fire Records)

Sep. 5, 2012
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Anyone who has even casually followed Giant Sand leader Howe Gelb's career has been rewarded handsomely. Orbiting around the foundation of desert-rock have been projects veering from collaborations with a gospel group in Canada and a flamenco group in Spain to Lucinda Williams, Jim Dickinson, Lisa Germano, M. Ward and Calexico (Giant Sand's one-time rhythm section).

With that track record, it is no surprise that Tucson: A Country Rock Opera should feature enough conspirators to add an extra “Giant” to the band's name—roughly 20 folks appear on the recording. And Gelb takes full advantage of this array of voices, instrumental and vocal, to loosely weave the story of “a semi-grizzled man with overt boyish naïveté.”

As the tale meanders, rivers flow backward and the album shifts its palette of voices. “Recovery Mission” features a children's chorus that blurs into slide guitar and trumpet. Lonna Kelley's smoky jazz vocal on “Ready or Not” and Brian Lopez's otherworldly vocal on “Love Comes Over You” stand out, as does “Thing Like That,” a reworking with strings of a tune previously heard on 1992's Center of the Universe.

Earthly possessions come to mean nothing. Gelb's lyrics seem to venture that sounds are just as valid as actual meaning—“Forever and a Day” beams with mariachi horns. Love lost, love found, love missed by a mile—the story lines hold together because Gelb lets them move on their own. The lo-fi “Mostly Wrong” transforms like the Wizard of Oz into Technicolor. Bandleader Gelb is at home thumping out honky-tonk rhythms or french-fried leads on guitar as well as stabbing away at Monk-inspired piano riffage.

By the end, Tucson could be an existential road trip, a metaphor or even a country rock opera.


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