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Arizona Amp and Alternator - Arizona Amp and Alternator

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Artist: Arizona Amp and Alternator

Album: Arizona Amp and Alternator

Label: Thrill Jockey

Review date: Oct. 2, 2005

According to prominent hip-hop sources, the rap game can bear eerie similarities to the crack game. To hear Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb tell it in the four-part title cut to Arizona Amp and Alternator, making diffident y’allternative is a bit more like fixing cars. Who could get away with this? Howe Gelb, that's who. He's the motherfucking Chris Isaak of country. So cool, he's about to dissolve.

Utter the two-fer "dry heat" in Arizona during the summer and you risk an assault. If Gelb’s fanbase were as heavily populated, the phrase "dry cool" might be equally dicey.

With its rickety Southwestern-style arrangements, earth-toned melodies and Gelb’s croak of a voice, the Sand’s music is an obvious draw for those who consider Will Oldham grandiose. As with Oldham’s, Gelb’s songs can be rich indeed; it’s a shame Johnny Cash didn’t live to take any on. Too often, his most powerful work is buried beneath blasé tude and esoteric, Mascis-ish doofus humor. The liners on Arizona Amp and Alternator certainly warn off established doubters: "This band has no members," they say. "No membership is loud anymore." But if you didn’t tell Gelb to get off your phone years ago, have a look inside. He’s got an ace-in-the-hole this time named Scout Niblett, a British belter with more American soul than a Baptist tent revival. If Gelb didn’t have to thank Too Pure records for their "permission" to let Niblett join his memberless supergroup (which also numbers M. Ward, John Parish, Jason Lytle and other indie-class dwarf stars), you wouldn’t know. Leave it to Gelb to downplay his songwriting’s most polished showcase to date.

AAaA starts out cool, son… real cool. An off-kilter reading of Traffic’s cryptic "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" lets us know who’s running this. Immediately afterward, Henriette Sennenvaldt (of the Danish band Under Byen) sings "Man On a String" and picks away the icy scab over Gelb’s lyrical pain, and we’re reminded there’s nothing cooler than letting an emotionally volatile colleague steal the show once in awhile.

The backing vox on the first-chill-of-autumn ballad "Blue Blue Marble Girl" (wait for the "red cat boy" to appear) grease the wheels for the glorious hipster hymn "Loretta and the Insect World," which might be about a woman’s post-breakup degeneration but is definitely about the best thing that’s missing from every overrated Neko Case album. In between, there’s a cover of "Baby It’s Cold Outside" that, like Gelb himself, is too cool to be campy.

When he takes point, Gelb is as frustratingly elliptical as ever. "Can Do Girl" shoots the same eyes-averted nod to a solid romance that "The Leaving You" lends an obviously agonizing breakup. That’s Howe. I’m glad we’ve got him. And as of this disc, I’m convinced I’m not saying that simply to convince myself I’m cool enough to hang.

By Emerson Dameron

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