Howe Gelb Arizona Amp and Alternator / 'Sno Angel like You

Watching Howe Gelb play live, it’s immediately apparent that he’s not of this world. He has the aura of an ancient storyteller operating at several different planes of consciousness simultaneously, as he alternates between piano and guitar, between improv and songcraft, between the inspired and the insipid. When he gets bored of something, he changes gears quickly, ideally right around the time the audience’s patience is tested as well. If only the same approach applied to his recorded work where we’re locked into 45 minutes of Gelb fiddling about with minimal returns. Once in a while he strikes gold and justifies his credibility, like on 2003’s The Listener. But Arizona Amp and Alternator provides abundant evidence of Gelb at his worst, moaning like he has yet to sit up in bed, can’t remember anything he wrote the night before, and is wondering why all these musicians are in his living room (including M. Ward, John Parish and members of Grandaddy). ’Sno Angel like You, recorded in Ottawa, is slightly better, thanks to the presence of a gospel choir and some of that city’s leading lights (engineer Dave Draves, drummer Jeremy Gara, guitarist Jim Bryson). Unfortunately, the choir sounds grafted on as an excuse to elevate the mostly threadbare songs, the few exceptions being three compositions by Gelb’s late friend Rainer Ptacek. Overall, like far too much of Gelb’s recorded work, it’s a wasted opportunity. (Thrill Jockey)