By Roy Kasten
By Kris Wernowsky
By Chaz Kangas
By Joseph Hess
By Julie Seabaugh
By Mike Appelstein
By Rachel Brodsky
By Kelsey McClure
The desert is a magnet for loners and shut-ins, for the confident exiles who don't buy into the myth that to "succeed" with your art, you gotta live in a cultural center, gig at the hippest clubs or show your art in a gallery. The smart ones know that there's as much culture in the depths of Arizona as in the Lower East Side and that as much great music gets made down in the desert as in the big cities. Many of the great rural exiles of the 20th century couldn't have cared less about the system -- the galleries, the clubs, the record labels -- and insisted that the system come to them.
Sometimes it did; sometimes it didn't. Take Howe Gelb and his band Giant Sand. Fifteen albums in 15 years, no big-deal bidding wars, no hits, no massive groundswell of critical praise, just a half-dozen beautiful rock records peppering the band's discography, records that sit like trophies on the shelves of 10,000 or 20,000 people worldwide -- and, chances are, in the cheapie bins of your local record store, aching to be discovered by those curious souls interested not in buzz but in beauty.
Neil Young is always mentioned in discussions of the music of Howe Gelb, and understandably so, for they're kindred: Gelb destroys his guitar solos in a style akin to Young's circa Tonight's the Night and is apt to move from celebrating ragged glory to languishing under a harvest moon. But where Young's singlemindedness dictates that his records be either hard and loud or soft and pretty, Gelb creates a roller coaster of emotions over the course of an album. Like Young, Gelb is a skeptic and a romantic who doesn't take much stock in words like "the future" and "technology." Young, more often than not, wails and, despite his eccentricities, seems like a basically normal guy.
Gelb mumbles and seems like a bit of a shut-in: He's fine in his desert home plunking out a melody on a cranky old piano, though he's often got a group of musicians banging along (and always, these days, the great Calexico as his rhythm section). And though Gelb's a skeptic, he's not a technophobe: A synthetic electronic tone slips through the dirt on Chore of Enchantment from time to time. But it's always a shock to hear it, the same way it's a shock to see a satellite dish sitting in the front yard of a shotgun shack.
Anyone who can spew out the verse "Never mind speaking your mind/and shoving it way up there/Satellite is just a sad old light/and ill-equipped to care" should get some sort of trophy, and the words capture the crux (one of Gelb's fave words) of Gelb's philosophy. Couple this philosophy with the tone of legendary Memphis producer/pianist Jim Dickinson, whose fingers finessed some of the recordings on Chore of Enchantment (Kevin Salem did others, John Parish of PJ Harvey fame still others), and you've got a dusty gem of a record, one that moves from twangy desert-rock to weirdo beat-based nowhere music ("Wolfy") to pretty ballads ("Shiver") to full-blown jams (the glorious, baffling "1972"), all the while celebrating communal isolation.