Graded on a Curve:
Howe Gelb, ‘Sno Angel Like You + ‘Sno Angel Winging It

Tucson singer-songwriter Howe Gelb is rightly celebrated for his extensive solo output and long leadership of Giant Sand, a combination totaling roughly 50 albums (to say nothing of the EPs and 45s). Special amongst the productivity is ‘Sno Angel Like You; originally issued by Thrill Jockey, its 14 songs detail a fruitful collaboration with the Ottawa-based gospel choir Voices of Praise. Fire Records’ 10th anniversary edition features its thoroughly engaging live counterpart ‘Sno Angel Winging It; it’s available now on double vinyl and in a two compact disc + DVD combo.

Part of ‘Sno Angel Like You’s enduring value comes from its relaxed feel. Lacking the grandiosity of premeditated ambition, it never feels like it’s trying to impress, even when its knocking one’s socks off. The record’s very existence relates to chance; had Gelb not played a music festival in Ottowa in the mid-’00s, where he was struck by the gospel groups performing at the event and especially taken by Voices of Praise, it’s basically certain this album and subsequent performances would’ve never came to pass.

However, if modestly scaled, the disc remains a multifaceted delight, and it’s worth noting the CD-DVD package ‘Sno Angel Winging It emerged the same year as its studio precursor via Gelb’s label OW OM Finished Recorded Products. The project took shape through a batch of songs written with the choir in mind, Gelb augmenting them with new versions of Giant Sand tunes and three borrowed from the book of his departed friend, ex-bandmate (way back in the Giant Sandworms) and fellow Tucson resident Rainer Ptacek.

Working with a tight band including Arcade Fire drummer Jeremy Gara, Gelb set the music down separately from Voice of Praise, a potentially dicey maneuver immediately vindicated by opener “Get to Leave.” Those familiar with Giant Sand will recognize the song from ’89’s Long Stem Rant (though maybe not, for as said the discography is huge). Where the original is hearty roots rocking that confirms Gelb as a key antecedent to the alt-country boom, this version emits a considerably gentler feel.

As it unwinds the idiosyncratic warmth of the writing is only magnified. Far from being thrown for a loop, his choral abettors hang in without a hitch, and the stage is set for a magnificent ride; while clearly not a collaboration of equal roles, the buoyant brightness of “Paradise Here Abouts” is inextricably linked to the sheer magnetism of Voice of Praise’s skill in action, and the team-up produces distinctive results throughout.

With this said, “But I Did Not” does tickle the ear a bit like a scaled back Lambchop circa Nixon, a factor largely relating to the choir, natch (Lambchop used one on “Up with People”), but also because Gelb and Kurt Wagner have a few atypical alt-country qualities in common; but instead of Lambchop’s Nashville digs, the bluesy soulfulness of “Hey Man” sounds a whole lot like something cut in the middle of the night in mid-’70s Memphis.

Jim Dickinson was one of three producers on Giant Sand’s troubled album Chore of Enchantment, so the Memphis vibe isn’t accidental. From there, ‘Sno Angel Like You offers two of Ptacek’s compositions back-to-back, with the atmosphere of “The Farm” radiating just a bit like Neil Young; once upon a time, Gelb shouldered quite a few comparisons to ol’ Neil, mainly through a shared fancy for guitar racket.

Frankly, the Arizonan has amassed a more consistent discography, with the brilliant choral interjections in the midst of “The Farm” and likewise, the infectious backing vocal “ahh-ooh”’s during “That’s How Things Get Done” emphasizing a comparable desire to take chances; it makes Gelb’s musical dependability all the more impressive.

Standout “Love Knows (No Borders)” finds the distortion levels surging upward, and the bluesy instrumental “The Voice Within” effectively resets the stage for the tough clean strumming and rich vocal interaction of “Nail in the Sky,” the warmth of Gelb’s lead contrasting superbly with Voices of Praise’s vivid flow.

That Gelb felt moved to write so much material for this record is easily the strongest reason for its endurance as a masterpiece; exhibit A is “Howlin’ a Gale,” which manages to get raucous and rough and soulful and emphatic all at once. And the previously recorded sources are well chosen, particularly “Robes of Bible Black” (from ’88’s The Love Songs) and “Neon Filler” (from ’91’s Ramp); Ptacek’s “Worried Spirits” is between them, delivered as a rootsy stomp infused with gospel energy.

At the time of ‘Sno Angel Like You’s release “Chore of Enchantment” was a relative obscurity found on ’99’s Official Bootleg Series Volume 2: The Rock Opera Years (Fire added that CD’s contents to an expanded Chore of Enchantment in 2011). A tidier version of the song with the spotlight on Gelb serves to close the studio disc, though wordless backing vocals and electric piano do arise in the latter portion.

Live album skeptics should relax, for ‘Sno Angel Winging It succeeds mightily; essentially predating the vogue for performing records in their entirety, the contents here are reshuffled and some numbers set aside as five fresh selections fill out the set list; “Ballad of the Tucson 2” and Chore of Enchantment’s “Dirty from the Rain” fit easily into ‘Sno Angel Like You’s scheme as “Spiral” and “Vortexas” highlight Gelb at the piano.

“Astonished” ties all the threads together with some fine pedal steel (offering additional shades of Lambchop), but the new songs aren’t the main point of interest; the confident flow of the performance is a total treat, as is the further blossoming of “Robes of Bible Black,” “Worried Spirit,” and “Howlin’ a Gale.” If the size of Howe Gelb’s body of work is formidable, these two interrelated jewels provide a splendid point of entry into his oeuvre.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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