We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Cross a Pentecostal with a pothead, and you’ll get one of three results: (a) a hypocritical wolf in lost-sheep’s clothing, (b) a Teresa of Avila in the making, or (c) Howe Gelb. The former Giant Sand frontman isn’t a cynical huckster hipster, or even a visionary future saint, but he’s one hell of a twisted desert philosopher, and his mix of bent platitudes, loping-limping guitars, and wayward melodies is both wholly sincere and deeply appealing. “If you can’t afford the fuel” for “a wagon that don’t run on air,” he sings on “Get to Leave,” the album’s opener, “pray you get the passion/To keep the spirit rolling and get on out of here.” That song evinces a desire to escape this world from its very first fade-in of rolling strums and monotone baritone. Then the gospel choir Voices of Praise—who hail from Canada but sound as if they were picked up, in ones and twos, hitching along the Ajo Highway—chorus with hillbilly harmonizing that’s two parts Earth to one part Heaven, and this road trip picks up momentum. Well, sorta: The bluesy “Hey Man” is so relaxed that you can imagine co-producer Dave Draves nudging Gelb with his big toe to get him through those opening chords, and Jeremy Gara’s drums suggest someone occasionally—but rhythmically—falling against the kit. Here Gelb wants you not to “panic your heart before the hard times start,” and his own laconic confidence is inspiring. But delightful as Gelb’s hippie Hallmark verses are, they’re topped by those of his late pal and Giant Sandmate Rainer Ptacek, whose “The Farm,” “That’s How Things Get Done,” and “Worried Spirits” Gelb covers here. They stand out eloquently from Gelb’s laid-back litany—“The Farm” in particular, which creates magic out of a wake-up tempo, snaking electric strings, and Gelb’s plaintive croon on the line “How did we ever survive with so much missing?” When the Voices of Praise chime in with “Someone, somewhere, some place, out there,” they hover and shimmer above the “plains of Kansas,” lighting up every mote of dust. That’s the strange thing about Gelb’s music—the way it powers itself. We glimpse an unseen generator on “The Voice Within,” on which you can feel Gelb pushing himself, laboring through this propulsive, fuzzed-out guitar blues, which only adds to the groove. Too soon, though, a few more tracks have worked their charms, and Gelb is talking about leaving again—not for another world, but to continue his work, “The Chore of Enchantment,” elsewhere. “One of these days,” he vows, “I’m going to get me a plan.” Howe, dude, why mess with perfection?—Pamela Murray Winters