It’s kind of a shame that Howe Gelb is not a household name. Gelb’s trendsetting Arizona collective Giant Sand (shortened from the original name Giant Sandworms) has spun off some of Tucson’s finest in Calexico and the Friends of Dean Martinez, but has lingered in relative obscurity to all but a handful of devotees. Gelb has been making music for near thirty years in both Giant Sand and various other side projects, showing a prolificacy that tends to put anybody but Ryan Adams and Prince to shame, and a quirky sense of humor that tends to put some people off. Gelb is celebrating his 50th birthday with ‘Sno Angel Like You, his fifth solo LP, somewhat of a departure from his normal output, but also paying homage to some of Giant Sand’s best.
The album’s title holds many meanings, the first being that the term “`Sno Angel” refers to Gelb’s project with a gospel choir and Like You representing the name of the album. Of course, the album’s title is also the full name, ‘Sno Angel Like You, representing the term, “There is no angel like you.” Then there’s the story that the image of a snow angel is what stood as a symbol for the music Gelb was trying to create this time around. Gelb retreated from his Arizona home to record the album, finding himself in the snowy climes of Ottawa, Canada. There, in 2003, he found himself at the Ottawa Bluesfest, scheduled to play in a church, sandwiched between gospel choir performances. It was like a Blues Brothers-inspired message from God for Gelb, and he proposed a recording with the Voices of Praise.
The resulting album is a glorious collection of tracks resembling some of the best works by Neil Young, Lou Reed or Leonard Cohen. Gelb’s southwestern guitar heavy rock, combined with the backing of the Canadian gospel choir is revelatory. Only seven originals appear on the album, but those tracks, including the great triumvirate of “Paradise Here Abouts,” “But I Did Not” and “Hey Man” are inspiring. The other tracks include three Giant Sand `covers’ / reworkings (“Get to Leave,” “Neon Filler” and “Chore of Enchantment”) and three Rainer Ptacek tunes (“The Farm,” “That’s How Things Get Done” and “Worried Spirits”) that Gelb felt could use the gospel touch. Boy, was he ever right. The Ptacek penned tracks (he was the on and off again guitarist for Gelb who died of cancer in 1997) resonate with pathos in this setting, especially with lines like “How did we ever survive with so much missing? ” and the accompanying chorus from “The Farm.” The lyric, “The strong ones fade and the weak ones die” is even more heartbreaking.
Gelb’s voice is a low drawl, as if he is channeling an Arizona born version of Lou Reed. That, combined with the backing choir, brings “Walk on the Wild Side” to mind immediately. But there is more here than that. The Canada meets the Southwest sound of Neil Young is also present, and so is the literary drama and so is the reflective, intimate and melancholy yet strangely uplifting presence of Leonard Cohen. “Neon Filler,” its original version coming in 1994, predates Jim White, making his “The Wound that Never Heals,” somewhat of a “talkin’ blues” / neo-noir / cowboy homage. It’s no stretch to say that this is one of Gelb’s best works, an inspiring collection of tracks that defy alt-country, gospel, folk and blues while combining elements of all four.