Graded on a Curve:
Giant Sand,
Ramp

The recent activity of Tucson, AZ’s Howe Gelb has been roughly divided between solo works and a pair of reflective albums by Giant Sand, the outfit he’s fronted for over 35 years. Along the way they’ve amassed a passionate, if modest (one could even say cult) following and an extensive discography. Amongst their best albums is Ramp, released in 1991 and reissued on July 17 by Fire Records with an LP of bonus material of the same vintage. Featuring Gelb’s songwriting and musicianship in full flower with contributions from Victoria Williams, Rainer Ptacek, Pappy Allen, Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico and even Gelb’s young daughter Indiosa, it’s a work of broad ambition with a solid core.

Americana, Alt-country, roots rock: Giant Sand has been called all three, and additionally, in terms less related to genre, they’ve been described as desert-like, with this tag surely related to their name, though in fact the moniker is a truncation of Giant Sandworms (a few 7-inch platters exist under this sobriquet spanning back to 1980).

Now, the decision to shorten the handle was wise on Howe Gelb’s part, as his first choice couldn’t help but suggest Frank Herbert-inspired fantasy-prog; Giant Sand don’t sound like that (thank goodness), and neither did Giant Sandworms, at least based on the one EP I’ve heard that was released under the name, the 5-song debut “Will Wallow and Roam After the Ruin.”

But all this talk of nixed worms is tangential to my larger point, which is that Giant Sand refreshingly avoid the expected connotations of desert-like, which is to say, that too many who’ve been designated as such are contending with clichés often related to the cinematic, either in neo-Western mode frequently drawn from, but substantially lesser than, the great Ennio Morricone (may the maestro RIP), or just sunbaked neo-noir.

Ramp’s first track “Warm Storm” underscores Gelb’s transcendence of the formulaic; it’s just a sturdy catchy rocker with backing vocals, the kind you might go to a bar and pay money to hear a band play, and not the kind of bar that’s next door to a motel with blood stains on the carpet. If there’s a neo-noir element to the album, it’s in the piano bar ambience of side two’s short opener “Jazzer Snipe” and in the bonus album’s “Bible Black, Book II.”

Bar rock has its own burden of cliché, but Giant Sand avoid this thicket of thorns through the strength of Gelb’s songwriting intermingled with range and sheer verve. The kind of bar Ramp recalls produces more good times than bad; maybe people sometimes drink a little too much there, but the denizens take care of each other, and that’s a special thing. From the description, it seems like the kind of place once owned and operated by Giant Sand’s occasional singer Pappy Allen (a nightclub in Tucson), which brings us to the precipice of Alt-country.

Allen (who died of a heart attack on February 28, 1994) sings “Welcome to My World,” a song most famous from its version by Gentleman Jim Reeves, and shares the mic with Howe on “Nowhere,” a Gelb original that exudes considerable honky-tonk potency. Both tracks are aided by the dobro of Rainer (another Ramp contributor who passed too soon, stricken by a brain tumor November of 1997) and the steel guitar of Neil Harry, but it’s Allen’s vocals, unpolished right up to the edge of strangeness but with a counterbalancing touch of George Jones, that really amplify the uncut country essence.

And notably, Gelb and company pulled all this off before the term Alt-country was even in common usage. Something similar happens regarding Americana, a style that has become far too well-mannered in recent years. Here, “Wonder,” with Victoria Williams shining on vocals, unwinds like a prototype for contempo Americana, except that it also wields passages that are splendidly loud. “Seldom Matters,” also with Williams, eschews the volume but still manages to sidestep the trite, which directly pertains to the quality of the songwriting

Occasionally, Americana can bypass well-mannered and get into the neighborhood of cutesy. I mention this because Gelb’s daughter Indiosa Patsy Jean sings on “Patsy’s Blues.” Now, having your child lend vocals to your record isn’t a particularly Americana-esque maneuver, but it can inspire the gnashing of teeth related to an overdose of sweetness. Well, not here, as Indiosa interweaves the song of dinosaur Barney (maybe a little cute) with Heart’s “Barracuda” (not so cute), providing a nice capper to the CD and to Fire’s prior vinyl edition. But don’t let’s get ahead of ourselves.

Roots rock? I did mention “Warm Storm” as a rocker, one so nicely enhanced by the backing singing of bassist Paula Jean Brown (also an ex-member of the Go-Go’s, Gelb’s ex-wife, and Indiosa’s mom), but it also has a swell midsection tempo-downshifting redirect into dobro and steel guitar. Later cut “Anti-Shadow” utilizes the same tactic to a significantly different result, mainly because it briefly glides during a scenario that’s increasingly bruising.

Earlier, the bar for guitar mania and big beat was set rather high with “Romance of Falling” (I adore Brown’s singing in this one), underlining how Giant Sand regularly focused more on the rock in roots rock. Same goes for “Z.Z. Quicker Foot,” which tightens the lineup to Gelb with Burns and Convertino, foreshadowing the trio on this edition’s second LP. Also, having those two on board (helping to define this stretch of the band’s lifespan) nails down the roots side of the equation without any trace of strain.

“Neon Filler,” which offers keyboards of a decidedly non-piano bar variety and more sweet backing vox by Paula and Darra Crouch (plus a few injections of Indiosa), conjures an aura halfway between contemplative and anthemic. It refuses easy compartmentalization, as does “Resolver,” where Gelb kinda comes off like a post-folkie singer-songwriter of the early ’70s on an eccentric country kick.

Taken as a whole, Ramp effectively reinforces Gelb’s Paisley Underground connections as it explores the aforementioned styles, but that whole has an unusual release history. Initially issued in the USA in 1991 on CD by Restless, that 13-track sequence was reissued on vinyl by Fire in 2011 and comprises the first LP here. Using Discogs as the authority, the only other vinyl press of the album was through Rough Trade in ’91 but with “Romance of Falling” as opener, “Always Horses Coming” and “Patsy’s Blues” left off (“Nowhere” is the closer) and “Shadow to You” added.

That track is here on the bonus album, which holds seven of the ten songs cut in January of ’91 at Mad Dog Studios. Heavy-duty Giant Sand heads might recognize sides three and four from the Sandman Series CDr The Atlantic Session. Here, they offer the best kind of addendum, productively extending the proper album rather than simply dishing the minutia of alternate takes (there is only one, a version of “Romance of Falling” that’s embryonically robust).

The worthiness of this extra material makes this edition the definitive one for an already exceptional record. It’s unlikely folks just getting into Giant Sand will ever hear everything released under the name, but those listeners will definitely want to get acquainted with the goodness of Ramp if they haven’t already.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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  • Stephen M.H. Braitman

    Joseph: Nice review. One slight embellishment: “Ramp” was first issued on CD on the Amazing Black Sand label (AB-CD-02), then reissued on Restless.

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