Giant Giant Sand - Tucson - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Giant Giant Sand - Tucson

by Amy Putman Rating:2 Release Date:2012-06-11

For an album which describes itself as a 'Country Rock Opera' this was neither rock (even in its softest variety) or operatic, and indeed was woefully short of country. The 'operatic plot' of the track sequence is patchy and seems like more of an excuse to lend weight to a misaligned bunch of misfits than a conscious design.

While listening to the music unfold, I felt a sad mixture of sleepy, bored and depressed. The only good thing about my first listening, in fact, was the lively debate it sparked in my kitchen as to which genre it was. My housemates and I have a wide variety of somewhat clashing tastes yet we were united against this album, all arguing vehemently that it could not be categorised as our favourite genres. It's not folk, it's not jazz, country, rock or indie. The highest compliment was that it's not offensive.

On the second listening I had a sudden brainwave - this is an Arizona version of lounge music. The kind of thing that, if I were drinking or dining with good company, I would find mildly pleasant. I wouldn't dance to it or anything but I wouldn't want to move venues. That said, it also has the kind of ambient, throwaway emptiness that would really grate on my nerves during networking or a bad date.

This album says nothing about music or society; it is unique in that it is seemingly culturally unspecific - it is the muzak of any moment in the past 50 years. It mewls platitudes and stereotypes of love and relationships. I suppose one positive is that it is unchallenging, but that also makes it unengaging and dull. The singers are trying too hard to be husky and each and every song is about a minute too long. They are abundantly self-indulgent with poorly melodised instrumental segments trying to be raw and cutesy with flat notes and pitchy drawls. Lyrics like "said the power of the flower" sound like they wrote them by flipping through a rhyming dictionary an hour before recording while dangerously hungover (It should be mentioned here that this entirely tuneless track begins with the over-reaching lyrics "Here on this plain of existence").

The third play-through happened against my will. Let me explain. The album is so grey and samey that it is impossible to actually listen to it with any concentration. It is as though your ears and brain know the horrific effect such brown, blistered plainness will have on your psyche (imagine a crust of overcooked wholemeal bread stretching as far as the horizon beneath a beige sky and your mother somewhere in the background hovering in a checked apron, silent but oppressively lingering) that it refuses to latch on in any meaningful way. This meant that I didn't actually realise that a full cycle was complete and the album had started itself again until the fifth track or so.

The opening track is not even a poor man's contemporary Leonard Cohen; it is as though we were transported back to the Middle Ages where true peasantry existed. There, some 90 per cent deaf bastard son of a strip farmworker turfed out of the family cruck house and pig sty and thus residing in the chicken-coop adjacent heard of someone who had once heard of Leonard Cohen and tried to recreate it.

With the second track we then proceed into bad 80s folk blended with the kind of crass pseudo-country sound which emanates from deep city rap ghettos who don't know who Johnny Cash or even Dolly Parton are. Even half-brained hillbillies would stone them. The crazy thing is that Howe Gelb knows country deeply and proficiently. It's in his soul. His first band, Giant Sand, were a rigorously, gloriously talented country-rock/country-grunge band. I can only assume he's suffering from amnesia. Or perhaps he took on too many Danes (Gelb's wife is Danish and so are many of the band members of Giant Giant Sand) and succumbed to Scandinavian politeness/mildness.

At the start of track three, they try so very hard to seem serious and deep and cool in that spaghetti western hero kind of a way, with a jam-pot philosophy ("as it was, as it will be") and a nod to border control policies (poor man trying to get back to his sweet lil' house on the prairie gets stuck in detention - gosh darn those authorities that stop real men from a'roamin') but it just sounds wet and pretentious. The echo effect seems too effortful and the pseudo-meaningful vagueness of the lyrics is as laughable as teenagers' first stoner talk.

The fourth track of Crew Insipid is a saccharine neo-jazz piano bar drawl which should be sung by a stripper. Actually I use "sing" in quite a loose sense since they have clearly decided that gruff French-style speech is preferable to exercising their vocal chords. The only exception is 'Love Comes Over You' (hahahahaha, titter, titter… The best thing about the album is that title) which sounds like a whiney version of art-school film noir soundtracks. I'll leave it up to you to decide whether that's good or not.

I could go on but there is little point - this album basically gives the impression that you are listening to four tracks stuck on a perma-loop. Perhaps I'm being a little harsh - there was one song (Track 13: 'Hard Morning in a Soft Blur') where I thought "Yeah! I feel like a cowboy - this is finally getting going!" before it ended, and there were 20 seconds of ripped off Pink Floyd on track six: 'Undiscovered Country' that were really quite enjoyable. Gelb gets extra-growly in 'The Sun Belongs to You' (track nine), whether intentionally or from a throat infection, and that is pleasing, though I wish he'd kept it going throughout the album.

It is also about the only track that becomes almost-fun, with a lightly Mexican influence. The closing number, 'New River' sounds like it is coming across time from a crackling roadside gas station radio in the1950's, which is a pretty cool moment if you truly believe. Plus, if you're short of time to enjoy music, this album is easy to digest and skipping half of any song makes no real difference.

For the record, my comments do not in any way mean they will not achieve commercial success. They are excellent at ripping off other artists (Cash for one) and making easy-listening versions. Besides, there are plenty of other soulless background bands who do very well. If that's all they are aiming for then good luck to them - they aren't the worst of that type and seem to be making a decent effort, hashing together an above average 19 tracks. If they are aiming for artistic integrity, interesting styles or even, dare I suggest, beauty, however, then I wonder why Gelb bothered to form Giant Giant Sand.

I liked the energetic blend of Giant Sand - a band which reeked of youthful road-trip mishaps and had a unique musical style combining the raw, home-made aspects of grunge with the instrumental talent and forward motion of good country. I read recently (though I forget where) that the recent re-release of Giant Sand's records have meant that Howe Gelb is now revered and treated with respect.

While I do not wish to undermine his previous achievements or imply he does not deserve respect, I think, sadly, it may have gone to his head and that, either way, it has not been good for his creativity. Sometimes ego boosts originality. Here it has killed the music with lazy self-indulgence. Or maybe he just got old and tired like the 'hero' of this 'rock opera'.

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