Another album and another winner, whatever musical incarnation Howe Gelb currently resides within. Giant Sand just keeps on truckin’, and with Blurry Blue Mountain Gelb and Co. have produced an album that’s surprisingly superlative.
Though firmly rooted in the band’s crispy Arizona desert sound, Gelb keeps pushing on from the edges of finality, seamlessly integrating his often brooding voice, often jarring guitar with a thoughtful and introspective piano tune. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard an alt-country release that’s so heavily influenced by the jazz of Thelonius Monk, though still retaining a cohesive feel up and on down the line, as Gelb would murmur.
The record begins an introspection, an aging persona almost casually contemplating not only the loss of his heroes more importantly the mystery of its suddenness. The feeling of loss is pervasive, saved only by the tiny diamond discovered by his beloved who sees it as him, he a self-described chunk of coal.
Finding this tiny bit of redemption, the record picks up its emotional momentum, as the narrator regains his mojo from such disparate legends and influences as Thelonius Monk and the Molly Maguires, perhaps not so incidentally retracing Gelb’s own footsteps “from the Pennsylvania coal to the Arizona copper sun”. What follows is the narrator’s newly found identity, a crafty, cheeky though contemplative musical self-sacrifice, which pays off handsomely. Listen closely enough and you might find a story cycle hidden just beneath the dust alongside the rail tracks.
The tracks are tight as a drum, with little deviation. Fields of Green, Chunk of Coal, Ride the Rail, Erosion, Love a Loser, and Love Letters (bonus song) are the big standouts. As usual, the guitar work, piano and percussion is dustily immaculate, if a bit too subtle at times. And like Marie Frank in previous GS works, Lonna Kelly provides provides some real sultry shivers on several tracks, nicely complementing Gelb’s droll. The problem is that Gelb is musically understated and/or too tongue-in-cheek, so one typically has to turn the volume up to get a better overall feel. If anything, Blurry Blue Mountain is a grand upstanding album, while at the same time just another another teaser for Gelb’s future experimentation.