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It’s 33 and a third years since the seminal Giant Sand and its country cousin The Band Of… Blacky Ranchette entered the studio to lay down their second albums. Yes. Both bands had recorded their second albums each. Two sides of the multi-faceted hyper-productive Howe Gelb.
“I was turning 28,” he recalls, “and had been wanting to make and release albums since my early 20s, but only recently had figured out how. It was time to make up for lost time.”
Time was of the essence. Why be in one band when two can do twice as much? He meant business – he played his $75 Harmony H-60 with a Coke bottle on the inner sleeve photo; what else could you want?
So, this was a man with minimal studio time and maximum ideas making music caught in flux that for complicated reasons went unreleased in the States while garnering huge plaudits through Europe; Ranchette’s excellent ‘Heartland’ and the Sand’s explosive ‘Ballad Of A Thin Line Man’ were a quest to reshape music that continues to unravel many years later.
That thin line between then and now has seen journeymen Giant Sand release 27-ish albums, their latest, ‘Recounting The Ballads’ turning the clock back to 1986’s ‘Ballad Of A Thin Line Man’, picking over the bones and making a whole new soup.
“It’s rooted in the same sort of rough-and-tumble neo-paisley underground rock as their debut ‘Valley Of Rain’,” reckoned AllMusic of the original it was indeed a tough love amalgam of disruptive angular guitars and gorgeous off kilter prose, with some beautiful backing vocals by sparring guitar partner Paula Brown.
All these years on, the latest incarnation of Giant Sand: Howe Gelb (guitars, piano) Tommy Larkins (drums) and Thøger Lund (bass), have dusted off the old vinyl and re-imagined those heady days – they’ve polished these buried gems, reignited some truculent tirades and rekindled an ageless angst.
The revamp re-orders the tracks, drops a couple and adds ‘Reptillian’, a previously lost song hailing from their album’s 25th anniversary re-issue, a tune that opens proceedings and basks in all its crinkly glory. There’s also two takes of ‘Tantamount’.
“That was a fun notion to utilize the little used word “Tantamount” which came from my time teaching in a Danish music conservatory,” explains Howe, “And, I chose the chording of my punk roots to house it in. When I listened back to it a long time later I discovered it was actually a pretty good song.”
Version two, ‘The Tantamount Blast’ features an affected analogue vocal, coming on like a menacing old school telephone message on an old spooling cassette that’s been recorded over many times. It’s tense.
Indeed, the new versions remain white knuckle abrasive when needed, soft and reflective when not. Winston Watson (drums) and Annie Dolan (guitar) turn out on ‘Desperate Man’ and Paula Brown returns to sing her song ‘The Chill Outside’ and adds backing vocals on the haunting ‘Graveyard’. It’s house-style Giant Sand, light and dark… unpredictable.
As is now, as was then, the guitars wrangle; tangential riffs are everywhere, a detuned concept that became synonymous with the band going forward. It’s almost an approximation of sound at times, the original album a way of them getting things out of its system:
“It harboured all the regurgitated rock I had digested from 14-years old onward,” admits Howe, ”It was an unconscious determination; ‘Desperate Man’ = T Rex; ‘Hard Man To Get To Know’ = Led Zeppelin; ‘Reptillian’ = David Bowie; ‘Graveyard’ = Neil Young; ‘Who Am I’ = Bob Dylan; ‘You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory’ = Mott The Hoople.”
The unique thing about Giant Sand’ is they make it all their own, they sound like no-one else. For example, their version of Johnny Thunders’ emotional turmoil ‘You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory’, back then it’s a barroom lament, here now it’s funereal rumble that blows up into an air punching piece of punk celebration.
Howe: “We were a fine storm. The greatest storm in terms of tumultuous velocity and pelting bluster.
It proved unstoppable…
for a minute”.
The songs remain the same, but somehow completely different.