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2 February 2016

Giant Sand - 'The Love Songs' (Homestead)

It's exciting to review a test pressing, and a pretty good sounding one too - as far as I know the higher-ups at Homestead gave the thumbs-up to this. Somehow, this test pressing (I wonder how many were pressed) made it to Jerry's record store in Pittsburgh many years ago, accompanied by the 'one-sheet' promo text -  and I grabbed it, not knowing much about Giant Sand except they were supposed to be alt-country (but not the annoying Wilco kind). Between this and all of the subsequent Giant Sand records I've heard, this one is definitely the most 'country' sounding, though I don't know what that says except my own genre biases. It's an electric country record for sure, with lots of biting guitars, keyboard/organ drones, and other flourishes. It's a very well produced record, but somehow after years of casually listening to Giant Sand and Howe Gelb, I've never gelled with them completely. So I've always had this mild appreciation of his work without ever really loving it. A few years ago they made that Giant Giant Sand record called Tucson that was pretty ambitious and pretty great. But this is much earlier, and has some hard-rocking ballads, like the opening cut 'Wearing the Robes of Bible Black'.  The production is really top-notch, and nothing really indicates it's 1988 though I wouldn't know what alt-country is supposed to sound like then except for the Mekons. The drums are bright and crisp, and the arrangements are thick but tasteful. There's some waka-chika gutiar on 'Love Like a Train' which somehow works in the context and doesn't drag it towards a 70s porn sound. Gelb is a songwriter that lets his idiosyncrasies out; his vocals occasionally wail and contort, and he's not afraid to cop a classic pose, though it's always a little off-kilter. 'Almost the Politician's Wife' starts with a gentle acoustic strum and works from the position of a roving eye, never quite content, but not restless either. The album ends with a cover of 'Is That All There Is?', recently resurfacing in pop culture by its inclusion in the final season of Mad Men; here, Gelb is sarcastic, voice breaking into a million different directions. The album concludes by dissolving into a sample of The Honeymooners, which I guess means this is a reflection back on the past and the 60s in particular, though I don't really feel it. Are these actual love songs? They don't jump out as particularly romantic, but maybe that's the point. Giant Sand have always seemed to me like a band whose pleasures lie in subtlety, even if the songs aren't necessarily restrained; I think further time is required (even though I've had this LP for well over 15 years) to truly dig in.

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