BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
A year after the re-release of their seminal album Glum and their first new album in three years, Returns to Valley of Pain, Giant Sand make a quick turnaround with Recounting the Ballads of Thin Line Men, an album that shows even after an earlier extended absence, the band is in fine form. Leader and guiding light Howe Gelb remains at the helm of this ever-shifting ensemble, as always responsible for a strange assortment of sounds that are often as inexplicable as the album title itself. Given the fact that the band is frequently on hiatus, it’s still cause for celebration, particularly for those fans who have come to appreciate the way they reflect their particular southwest desert noir. However, for those who have yet to catch up, or catch on, even after nearly 35 years, the music often comes across like a confounding contradiction.
As expected then, Recounting the Ballads of Thin Line Men offers a series of menacing melodies, one moment, loud and unruly, and then several that are, by equal measure, sombre and subdued. Howe himself possesses a vocal quality that conveys a decided sense of gravitas in his doom-laden delivery. “Get your acid at the door,” he suggests in the opening verse of “Tantamount,” and indeed a psychedelic mindset might well be the key to full appreciation. That said, Howe and company are at their best when the music is propulsive — the robust “Reptillian,” an upbeat “The Chill Outside” and the scorching rocker “Thin Line Man” being prime examples. All too often however Gelb resorts to his Lou Reed variety deadpan demeanor, an approach which comes across as ominous and overbearing. On the other hand, when he veers off with some variation on the aptly-dubbed “Who Am I,” he sounds like Jim Morrison stoking the flames of pure petulance, and appears far more veracious for it. Likewise, the Zeppelin-sounding riff underscoring “Hard Man To Get To Know” offers an all too rare familiarity factor that promises, albeit temporarily, a common connection.
Then again, Giant Sand would not be the eccentric outfit they are without a few twists and turns along the way. In Recounting the Ballads, they offer ample reasons why. (Editor’s note: The album is available on limited edition colored vinyl – with download card included – in addition to CD and standard black vinyl versions.)
DOWNLOAD: “Reptillian,” “The Chill Outside” “Thin Line Man”