BY FRED MILLS
Tucson-based Gabriel Sullivan, who in addition to several solo albums (including 2012’s None of This is Mine, billed as Gabriel Sullivan & Taraf de Tucson) has worked with Giant Sand, Marianne Dissard, Billy Sedlmayr and others, somehow manages to make things look easy. Which by one way of thinking makes him more than mere prodigy; the twentysomething is part musical polyglot, part Renaissance dude, 100% restless soul. New album JVPITER demonstrates that restlessness via a wide-ranging collection of tunes that nevertheless share a seductive, at times nocturnal, vibe guaranteed to leave listeners entranced.
It’s also the purest—and rejuvenated—expression of so-called “desert rock” that I, a one-time resident of Arizona, have encountered in ages, a worthy heir to such classics as the Sidewinders’ Witchdoctor, Giant Sand’s Valley of Rain, Rainer’s Nocturnes and Calexico’s Feast of Wire. For tequila aficionados and spaghetti western acolytes, it’s a rare gift.
The album opens with the dusty “Seven Cataracts,” awash in that oh-so-familiar spaghetti twang, strings and Mariachi horns as Sullivan unspools a dreamscape involving a girl, a guy, the titular Arizona mountain hiking vista, and some, ahem, goings-on. From there he proceeds through luminous folk-rock (the longing-for-home “Tucson Rose”); hushed, spooky psychedelia (“Flower Song,” in which Sullivan swaps his trademark growl for a raspy whisper, suggesting a young Tom Waits at the mic); a kind of Latin twist on reggae (“If You Came to Me Softly”); and even a version of Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” which goes beyond mere “cover” or “homage” status—Sullivan absolutely inhabits the tune, nailing its original sense of defiant resignation then going further to give it a measure of uncommon humility and desperation, and you can practically whiff the mesquite wood smoke wafting from the narrator’s desert campfire.
There’s also a remarkable track titled “Hollow Hunter” that brings together all these disparate elements that inform Sullivan’s unique brand of border rock, cinematic and panoramic in the truest sense of the words. Sings—or, maybe, advises—Sullivan, “For 13 years/ Wouldn’t let the pain go/ You got to stop holding on/ To those things you thought you’d know… Time will get you through and through.” One day a screenwriter is going to come across this song and decide to assemble a script from its implied narrative. In fact, Sullivan previously told BLURT that the latter song is in his mind “perhaps the most representative of the way I view the JVPITER album. It embodies the cold and somewhat alien feeling of the record while maintaining its earthy roots. The basic tracking for this song was done in Denmark while all the string, percussion, and electronics overdubs were done in Tucson… which is perhaps what gives it its balance between two worlds.”
That in turn suggests the most appropriate way to view the record as a whole: Sullivan, in constant motion, slipping between several dimensions—musical, spiritual, aesthetic, fanciful, etc.—without regard to the kinds of stylistic formalism that typically restricts less ambitious artists. It’s a rare quality, for sure, and a perilous one which can lead to distraction and doodling along with an accompanying deficit in quality control. So far, though, Sullivan’s batting 1,000, with JVPITER emerging as a remarkable statement amid a growing catalog of equally impressive releases. Here’s hoping he can weather the inevitable artistic valleys that come with career and age, in order to fully appreciate his time up on the peaks. It’s a gorgeous view, after all, up there on the mountains overlooking Tucson, isn’t it?
DOWNLOAD: “Hollow Hunter,” “Flower Song,” “Seven Cataracts,” “The Ghost of Tom Joad”