Howe Gelb Confluence

Giant Sand has rarely been accused of hewing closely to the beaten track, even as they stumble over American folkways as they’ve blazed their own determinedly maverick trails out of American roots music. Which makes it all the more remarkable that Howe Gelb finds even Giant Sand too restrictive for his more eccentric walkabouts. Giant Sand cohorts John Convertino and Joey Burns show up with their Calexico caravan for a few songs but, for the most part, Confluence is pure, unvarnished Gelb. His delivery is a lot like his name: short, flat, terse, but also a little whimsical — his scruffy, lady-killer good looks are totally incongruous with the vocal croaks that would give you more of a mental image of Tom Waits before his morning coffee. And there is a Waits-ian quality to Confluence, in its mumbled witticisms and cryptic musings while the spare arrangements creak around them. A Howe Gelb contemplation on the accidents of history in “Pontiac Slipstream”: “If a feller named Monroe never fathered bluegrass/He would still be recognised as the grand wizard of speed metal.” Gelb mutters, scratches his head, squints at a glaring sun, rolls over and goes back to sleep, awakens with a start from a vivid dream and can’t tell whether he’s awake or still dreaming, and neither can you. All the while he beguiles you with the ass-backwardest charm, like a vagrant who sidles up next to you on the all-night streetcar and makes you uncomfortable with his mutterings, yet has you hanging on to every word. When you get to Gelb wheezing through “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” with Grandaddy providing the sparse accompaniment, you can take it as mordant humour or a devotional to American pop music, as you will. You may be right either way. (Thrill Jockey)