Howe Gelb - Future Standards

by David Bruggink Rating:7 Release Date:2016-11-25
Since I heard the boys of Calexico, Joey Burns and and John Convertino, used to be members of a band called Giant Sand, I knew I would need to check it out. Enamored with their brand of gorgeously dust-caked indie rock that radiates with the intriguing glow of the southwest, I wondered what insights their former band could provide into their genesis.

Giant Sand has had many contributors since it formed in 1985, but it has revolved consistently around the musical mind of Howe Gelb, who also records under his own name. I took an instant liking to albums like Giant Sand's Chore of Enchantment, with its unique blend of experimental textures and tightly composed songs, and Howe Gelb's more immediately tuneful The Listener and The Coincidentalist. But while he has occasionally hinted at it in the past, the extent of full-on late night jazz he attempts on Future Standards makes the album feel like a new direction for an experienced songwriter who seems to relish taking risks. 

I admit (somewhat ashamedly) that I have a soft spot for the sort of listener-friendly vocal jazz you typically associate with doing the crossword puzzle and drinking your coffee on Sunday morning. Thankfully (depending on your perspective), Future Standards provides that atmosphere in spades - slow tempos, vocals that never do more than mosey, and Gelb's capable piano playing, tranquil but verging on soporific, like a drowsy pianist you've stumbled upon in Woody Allen's romanticized vision of a New York jazz club. Though the songs are original, Gelb has nailed the feeling of the standard. Each song feels as though it was written decades ago, and has soundtracked many a final slowdance at a well-liquored wedding party. The role of mellow chanteur seems to fit him with ease, particularly when his trademark grumbly tone is accompanied by the comparatively lithe vocals of Lonna Kelley.

Listeners already familiar with Gelb's output may not find it too strange, but the production quality can vary quite a bit from song to song. 'Terribly So' is well-balanced, with its nimble upright bass, playful keys, and Kelley's supple and pure voice pleasantly complimenting Gelb's lower register. However, 'Sweet Confusion', 'Mad Man at Home' and 'May You Never Fall In Love' have a much more impromptu feeling, as though Gelb sat down at his piano at 6am and happened to get a good take with his portable audio recorder. You can hear the birds chirping in the background and the shuffling of the piano's pedals, and the piano itself has a fuzzy, muffled quality to it that might drive some listeners with high-end audio systems mad. However, I find its roughness around the edges endearing, since it helps to reinforce the album's general relaxed vibe. 
 
If you give Future Standards your full attention, you'll find yourself impressed by Gelb's frequently clever wordplay - a fact that seems undermined by the album's tendency to settle serenely into mere background music, enabled by its unhurried pace and reassuring tone.