GIANT SAND – Heartbreak Pass

Album: Heartbreak Pass

Artist: Giant Sand

Label: New West

Release Date: May 19, 2015

Giant Sand 5-15

www.newwestrecords.com

BY JASON GROSS

With Wilco leaning toward arty shades of indie rock and the Jayhawks being studio-shy, Howe Gelb’s collective is probably one of the longest running and best Americana bands still out there making strong records- even their biggest competitor, the soundtrack-themed Calexico, got their start there.  Coming off of a country-rock opera and a dozen-strong Danish band (plus special guests like Steve Shelley and Grant Lee Phillips), Gelb proves that he’s still ambitious after 30 or so albums, with his soothing, reassuring voice as the unifying factor. Here, he splits an album that he admits is too long into 3 pieces: ‘loud and lucky abandon’ (aka rockin’ stuff), Americana and ‘heady stuff’ (aka brooding).  And even if he might be right that it’s a little bit too long even at 49 minutes, it’s not lengthy and never makes you nod off or wanna fast forward though it.

Part 1 is the prize—it’s upbeat and winning though it starts with a subtle, yearning opening featuring clever wordplay and a recital.  After that, he launches into a neat little rocker complete with a bizarre guitar battle and a nod to Leonard Cohen (“Texting Feist”).  From there, he goes to a grungy, crooked blues ala Tom Waits, Los Lobos (“Hurtin’ Habit”) and the dream lyricism of “Transponder” that recalls Grandaddy as it should since it features their ex-honcho Jason Lytle.

Part 2 covers self-analysis that makes something of negative energy (“Song So Wrong”), Spanish-flavored country music (“Every Now and Then”), a spooky, gloomy vibe that would do Johnny Cash proud (“Man on A String”) and a cute, clever take on touring life that would almost do John Prine proud (“Home Sweat Home”).

Part 3 mostly evokes a let night jazzy vibe complete with a solo piano piece. If the proceedings drag a little here and seem samey, Gelb is generous enough to still load it with stand-outs: the touching, lovelorn “Eye Opening,” the poisoned family tree and goth country of “House in Order,” the sad, majestic “Gypsy Candle” and yet another Cohen tribute on the croaky soft shuffle of “Done.” Though it’s not a triumph per se, the bare bones folky closer done with his 12-year-old kid about the homestead isn’t what you’d call cloying.

Despite the breadth of it, Heartbreak Pass isn’t sprawling.  It’s an impressive show of strength and act of endurance not just in its multi-part structure but also in Gelb’s long term commitment to his craft and his determination to make something endearing out of the downcast canvas that he’s made his own.  He’s not only earned his right to be glum but he’s also managed to make it sound enticing.  For a guy who’s about to hit 60, that’s an impressive achievement.

DOWNLOAD: “Texting Feist,” “Man on A String,” “Gypsy Candle”

 

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