Giant Sand – Blurry Blue Mountain

January 01, 1970

(Fire Records


The über-prolific recording/releasing machine that is Giant
Sand mainman Howe Gelb rolls on. Over the past year he’s issued several records
under his own name, including a flamenco guitar album called Alegrias (read our interview with Gelb
about that project here) and the brand-new, pay-what-you-want download-only Melted Wires (details here). Meanwhile,
he and his new label, Fire Records, have embarked upon an ambitious
remaster/reissue program
that started this fall with Giant Sand’s 1985 debut Valley Of Rain plus 1986’s Ballad of A Thin Line Man and 1988’s Storm, the plan being to ultimately
reissue 30 Sand/Gelb-related titles before the end of 2011.


In the middle of all this, then, arrives a fresh Giant Sand
release, although it’s hardly just another entry in a bulging Gelb discography
that stretches back nearly three decades. In fact, at the risk of slipping into
journalistic hyperbole, it’s the strongest and most cohesive GS album since
2000’s masterful Chore of Enchantment,
and before that, 1992’s blazing epic Center
of the Universe
, the title that helped bring Gelb to the attention of the
flannel-clad denizens of the then-exploding alterna-nation. You can ascribe the
aesthetic success of Blurry Blue Mountain to a number of things, from the actual tunes (featuring some of Gelb’s most
directly affecting lyrics in years, plus wonderfully fleshed-out arrangements)
and their sequencing (which deftly balances the yin/yang of rockers and
ballads, guitar-centric numbers and piano-based ones, to craft an aural journey
of sorts); to the overall recording quality and the performances themselves.


The album was cut mostly in Denmark with Gelb’s Danish group
of musicians – Thøger T. Lund on bass, Peter Dombernowsky on drums, Anders
Pedersen on slide and steel guitars and Nikolaj Heyman on guitar, plus Lonna
Kelley on guest vocals – all clearly at home and in their element, playing with
a mixture of relaxed determination and Gelb-approved free-wheeling abandon.
These performances contain a palpable spark and spontaneity – check how the
funky, bluesy “Brand New Swamp Thing,” slips through alternate-dimension-like
changes while retaining a definable, irresistible groove – yet it’s clear that
no one assembled in the studio did so with the expectations of zipping through
a few takes then calling things “a wrap.” Gelb, abetted by co-producer/engineer
Kent Olsen, got everyone to zero in on the material’s core, which is
essentially a freeing exercise, and in doing so, bestowed implicit permission
to the musicians to stretch their creative wings as they orbited the core. And
yes, that’s a kind of vague concept to put down on the printed page, but it’s
the best way I know to highlight the notion of a record’s “vibe.” If there’s
one thing about Giant Sand records, it’s that each has its own specific vibe. Blurry Blue Mountain‘s shimmers and
shivers in the best possible way.


It’s also quintessential Gelb, who meditates at length upon
the vicissitudes, good and bad, of getting older and how that changes one’s
perspective in both subtle and profound ways. Right from the get-go, with
opening track “Fields of Green,” he sings about transitioning into his fifties
and expresses amazement over how he’s sometimes viewed now by younger musicians
(“They’ve been killing off all my heroes since I was 17… the bleeding
trailblazers… Now I’m approached by those in need of reminder, confusing me
with path finder…”). This theme resurfaces several times over the course of the
album, such as in “Erosion” in which the “reaper” checks in to see “how you’re
holdin’ on/ and how much of you is already gone”), although it’s
counterbalanced by a series of testimonials about how finding and holding on to
a true love is what nurtures the soul, and how love and family are what
ultimately count. “Now kiss your girl/ Like it’s the last time/ Now kiss your
kid/ Like it’s the last time,” is the timely message in “The Last One,” while in
“Spellbound” Gelb utters one of his most memorable, and timeless, lines ever: “When
you’re in love with a beautiful woman… there inside her whisper is a lyric that
can’t be forgotten.”


As is the songwriter’s habit, little musical flourishes and
lyric asides dot the songs. For example, early in “Fields of Green” he
whisper-sings into the mic, “There’s a kind of hush/ All over the world, all
over the world,” as if he’d just noticed that the gentle guitar melody he’d
been plucking out resembles the progression in the early ‘60s Herman’s Hermits
hit “There’s A Kind of Hush (All Over the World)”; elsewhere in another song, he
namechecks both Merle Haggard and Thunderclap Newman, not necessarily because
either artist is particularly relevant to the song’s narrative but possibly
because a few lines earlier he’d sung the words “underneath the thunder
clappin'”  and it seemed like a nice way
to bring some symmetry into the lyrics. If you’re a longtime Gelb watcher, it’s
odd and serendipitous moments like this that add to the overall delight.


It doesn’t hurt, either, that the songs, already strong,
grow stronger with each successive listen. Among the best tracks: “Thin Line
Man,” originally a thumping garage-rock number appearing on Ballad of a Thin Line Man, is here
remade into a psychedelic spaghetti western epic; “Chunk of Coal,” with its
Floyd Cramer-like piano line, is honky-tonk-worthy country jazz; “Better Man
Than Me” picks up a similar thread as “Thin Line Man,” a churning, throbbing
slice of noirish space rock featuring a ferocious guitar duel; and 7 ½ minute “Monk’s
Mountain,” with its twangy, tremolo-flecked riffs, undulating boxcar rhythm and
part-muttered, part-crooned vocals, is an eleventh-hour entry for Year’s Best
Americana Song. As noted above, the sequencing of the tunes is key; at times in
the past, a Giant Sand album has been just as likely to meander as to progress,
which isn’t necessarily a bad thing of course, but for Blurry Blue Mountain there’s a steady, purposeful sense of forward
motion, and like the comment about “vibe” above, it’s a perceptual thing that’s
nevertheless very much real.


“Real” it is, then, daddy-o. You’re invited to come climb
Giant Sand’s blurry blue mountain. The closer you get, the more in focus things
start to become.


Mountain,” “Thin Line Man,” “Fields of Green” FRED MILLS

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