The Upshot: “Had an accident last night on Highway 95…” Howe Gelb & Co. revisit the band’s 1985 debut in classic freewheeling Gelb fashion. Go HERE to read our new interview with Gelb, in which he discusses his thumbing through the back pages and his long, colorful career.
BY FRED MILLS
It was just three years ago when England’s Fire Records, as part of their ongoing back catalog overhaul of Giant Sand and Howe Gelb, reissued G.S. debut Valley of Rain, remastering and expanding the 1985 gem (as “Beyond The Valley of Rain”) for a 30th anniversary edition. Included were extensive, fresh liner notes penned by Gelb, who duly related a conversation with his dear friend Rainer Ptacek, the late Tucson slide guitarist and songwriter with whom he’d formed Giant Sand precursor Giant Sandworms in the early ‘80s, and who would appear on many subsequent G.S. albums: “Rainer was right,” wrote Gelb, “when he said we need to make a music that won’t embarrass us ions from now (he tended to teach without really teaching).”
Prophetic—and well-taught/learned—words. Valley of Rain, whether in its original Black Sand Records/Enigma iteration or the aforementioned 2015 edition that boasts a bonus disc of outtakes and proximate live material from ’86 (the latter with Ptacek in the lineup), more than simply holds up to this day. It’s as seminal as other Amerindie titles from that period, notably the desert rock/proto-Americana and neopsychedelic/Paisley Underground scenes of the mid- and late-‘80s that included the Dream Syndicate, Green On Red, Rain Parade, Sidewinders, Zeitgeist, etc. And apparently Gelb made a similar determination in 2018 that, even after helming more than 60 albums to date, VoR was worthy of the proverbial Stetson-tip. Ergo, Returns to Valley of Rain, a track-by-track re-recording—with some notable tracklist shuffling—of the ’85 platter.
From time to time you hear of artists who gripe about this-or-that’s earlier release’s faults and how they’d love to attempt a re-do. Once in awhile they might actually go through with the threat—among the adapters, for better or less, Camel, Girlschool, Mike Oldfield, Car Seat Headrest, Suicidal Tendencies, and a slew of metal bands—but more often they simply settle for re-cutting individual songs and, of course, trotting out the “classic album done live” trope, once a mainstay of ‘70s classic rock icons but, nowadays, a staple of the touring-circuit scene. (Not to mention the bread-and-butter of tribute bands, who bank on the enduring appeal of, I dunno, Beatles/Doors/Pink Floyd and Sublime/G’n’R/Phish appeal to keep their mortgage payments up to date.)
Howe Gelb, though, has the luxury of (a) never releasing an album considered so commercially iconic that going the contemporary remake/remodel route would be a reputational risk; and, (b) having a uniquely dedicated fanbase that both knows his records and understands how being a Gelb/G.S. fan means enjoying and trusting the songwriter’s freewheeling, freeform view of his own back catalog. It’s no secret that Gelb takes a Dylan-like approach to song-selection and –rendition.
Returns to Valley of Rain, then, is a start-to-finish delight. It’s technically a re-do of the original UK cassette version of Valley of Rain, which had 11 tunes compared to the 10-song US LP. (Fire’s 2010 CD reissue added a pair of bonus tracks prior to their full-blown expansion in 2015.) And as noted above, it also toggles the track order; for example, where the original album opened with the title track followed by “Tumble and Tear,” the new one reverses the pair, effectively making the latter a kind of brusque overture/prologue that sets up the deeply anthemic groove of “Valley of Rain—with its irresistible riff, memorable melody, and honeyed harmony vocals from Annie Dolan—as a thematic focal point for the album.
RtVoR rocks its desert ass off from start to finish, whether we’re talking about the straight-up Nuggets-worthy garage of “Man of Want,” the almost-but-not-quite metal of “Black Venetian Blind,” the lumbering Old Pueblo howl that is “Barrio,” or the aforementioned “Tumble and Tear,” a Jurassic stomp which, over the years has become a genuine show-stopper (check this relatively recent live version for proof).
Produced by Gelb and Gabriel Sullivan—a musical savant in his own right who came on board with Giant Sand as guitarist a few years ago—Gabriel Sullivan, and featuring guitarist/vocalist Dolan, veteran Tucson drummer Winston Watson (who is also a Dylan band alumnus), and regular Giant Sand bassist Thoger Lund (plus, on a couple of tracks, Kid Congo Powers and original G.S. bassist Scott Garber), the album’s a must-hear for any longtime fan of the band. Intriguingly enough, it also can serve as a righteous introduction for newcomers to the Gelb oeuvre, which has been known to swerve all over the rock ‘n’ roll highway, sometimes to the discombobulation of less-discerning ears and sensibilities. This album, though, is about as straightforward as Gelb gets, and it also sounds like it was a helluva lot of fun to make. In my book, that impossible-to-quantify quality will always be a selling point.
Available on digital, CD, black vinyl, and sweet limited edition blue wax (plus, from Burger Records, limited edition cassette), and with a download code, it’s an essential addition to the G.S. collection.
DOWNLOAD: “Barrio,” “Tumble and Tear,” “Death, Dying and Channel 5,” “Valley of Rain”