It’s usually easy to pick a side in arguments between music business and artists. From Geffen taking Neil Young to court for making ‘uncharacteristic’ albums in the early 80′s to Reprise turning down Wilco’s eventual commercial breakthrough Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002), labels rarely do themselves any favours by questioning artistic decisions.
Tucson, Arizona’s ‘desert rock’ pioneers Giant Sand ended up at loggerheads with music biz machinations in the early 90′s when their tour promoters questioned the wisdom of flooding the marketplace with yet another record by the tirelessly productive combo. In a clever move that sidestepped the problem without actually making any changes to the original plan, the rejected album was put out as bandleader/mainstay Howe Gelb’s solo debut Dreaded Brown Recluse, the starting point to this comprehensive (within reason: Gelb has put out several self-released rarities over the years) eight-disc cruise through Gelb’s solo offerings, including a new collection of piano-centric recordings (Some Piano) and a rare live recording with a gospel choir (Sno Angel Winging It) alongside Gelb’s six official albums (packed with plentiful extras) under his own name.
For once, it’s easy to see what the ‘suits’ were getting at. Neil Young – alongside Lou Reed, Willie Nelson and vintage country, blues and jazz giants – is an obvious inspiration throughout the box, cropping up in lyrics, a point of reference for grizzled guitar workouts, and as an inspiration for songs in Gelb’s charming, illuminating liner notes. As well as subscribing to the Canadian legend’s refusal to be tied down to a particular style or sound, Gelb obviously shares Young’s belief in instant creativity, of first idea being the best idea; unexpectedly (Gelb professes to have had approximately zero interest in a solo career) freed from the pressures of expectations associated with Giant Sand, he’s consistently opted to indulge his taste for spontaneity to the maximum when left to his own devices.
As with Young, this approach only works when the material is strong enough to shine without an ounce of polish. The earliest works here – the eccentric, unknowable Dreaded Brown Recluse (1991), the ultra lo-fi bundle of random home recordings on the aptly titled Hisser (1998) – don’t always fit this criteria. As curios and doodles (a couple of metal guitar improvisations, anyone?) and (deliberately?) poorly recorded and/or under-rehearsed cuts fly by, it’s hard not to conclude that Gelb started out his solo journey by short-selling his immense songwriting talents. Tunes the calibre of “4 Door Maverick” (Hisser‘s heartfelt tribute to departed musical soul-mate Rainer Ptacek) only really started to shine once Gelb reworked them in less finesse-averse company on later albums. There are wonderful glimpses of what Gelb is capable of when he’s not rushing off to dabble with the next nugget in a seemingly inexhaustible flow of ideas: check out the Crazy Horse crunch of “Spirit Lie” (off Dreaded Brown Recluse) or the lovely “Creeper“, a typically unpredictable confessional from Hisser that lives right next door to Neil Young’s “Harvest”. The overall impression, however, thoroughly matches Gelb’s description of his solo career as ‘an afterthought’, a sideline to his day job in Giant Sand, an interpretation alluded to in the title of this box, ‘little’ surely being less note-worthy than ‘giant’. Maybe those doubting promoters were simply trying to politely suggest that it might be a good idea to slow down and think things through, as opposed to churning out reams of raw stuff that comes across as, depending on your outlook and levels of patience at the time of listening, charmingly shambolic or frustratingly devoted to underachievement.
By 2001′s Confluence, Giant Sand’s rhythm section Joey Burns and John Convertino had split to form celebrated borderline balladeers Calexico, leaving reluctant solo star Gelb band-less for the first time; generally speaking, things had – in Gelb’s words – “turned to shit”. The album that resulted from this turbulent time provides backing for that tired (but sadly accurate) old claim that great art often coincides with hard times. Maybe having no band to return to made Gelb focus more, but the whiff of messing around more or less aimlessly that hangs over much of the first two solo albums isn’t anywhere near as strong here. Although hardly slick and professional (the spooked “Hatch“, recorded in John Parish’s house, threatens to disintegrate at any moment), the frequently downcast tunes – including gems such as “Saint Conformity” and the nearly stationary “Space Available” – throb with a new found sense of purpose and direction, gaining more hypnotic power with each listen. Although drawn from numerous sources (including a mega-stoned live radio jam “Pedal Steel and She’ll” from the last days of Calexico and a strutting “Hard on Things“, Gelb dishing out his best riffs live with a new band), Confluence just about hangs together as an album.