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Howe Gelb - 'Sno Angel Like You

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Artist: Howe Gelb

Album: 'Sno Angel Like You

Label: Thrill Jockey

Review date: Feb. 13, 2006

When doing research for this project, a collaboration with a gospel choir, Howe Gelb (of Giant Sand, Arizona Amp & Alternator, etc., etc. semi-fame) asked a Baptist choral director if he thought it would be proper, or even possible, to tie transcendent Sunday harmonies to Gelb’s dry, understated motif. “Sure,” said the director, “if you keep it positive.”

Of the handful of music buffs who follow Gelb’s work, a certain set views the man with suspicion. If “prolific” means “puts out a fuck-ton of records,” then none would deny Gelb that distinction. But taking him seriously can be an ass-pain. He indulges unapologetically in gimmicks, such as the car-repair analogy of last year’s unfairly neglected Arizona Amp record. He covers himself, resurrecting his old material for new versions that don’t always force the cliché “new life” from critics… or fans. He shows no inclination to work on his batting average. He puts out a new record before any typical listener could fully digest the one before it. (The word “bullshit” comes up.) If he were dead, a 2Pac comparison might be apt. He’s not dead, though. (The word “asshole” comes up.)

So he’s wise to question his qualifications for walking into the madly disputed terrain that is gospel. He’s not likely to make new friends, no matter how solid ‘Sno Angel Like You might be. (Aside: Some people don’t enjoy Gelb’s sense of humor.)

As much as it matters, ‘Sno Angel Like You is solid indeed. Structurally, there’s still plenty of negative space in Gelb’s parched, brittle aesthetic. And, it turns out, unlimited airspace. The Voices Of Praise Gospel Choir gets plenty of room to move around and to soar, between the dried-out husks of melodies and plucking guitars, up into the rafters.

Lyrically, to his (eternal?) credit, Gelb keeps it positive. Some of his records showcase neuroses poisoned to a slow, diffident crawl. But the songs that anchor ‘Sno Angel Like You are ones of salutation, challenge, encouragement. We’re within our rights to celebrate when we acknowledge and circumvent our weaknesses – this is the engine of civilization – and “But I Did Not,” like “I Walk the Line” with a broader scope, serves to remind. Gelb’s not one for calls-to-action, but “Why save the hardship for the older you?” (from “Hey Man”) may be as close as he’ll get to a screensaver. “Chore Of Enchantment,” his backhanded blessing of monogamy from the likewise-titled 2000 Giant Sand disc, leans on its sunny side here.

Perhaps Gelb bought off the Voices Of Praise with these songs of reassurance. But it sounds as if he means what he says. Whether or not you trust him – if it makes any difference – remember that he’s never made a point of coveting your trust. He’s doing something new and exciting. Go, thou, and do likewise.

By Emerson Dameron

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