“Every girl is like a pearl/hearts strung along and then left stranded/this world is worn, all frayed and torn” Howe Gelb sings on “Stranded Pearl,” the opening track on proVISIONS, Giant Sand’s first album in nearly four years. A slow, brooding song ostensibly about a woman and a glass-eyed soldier whose relationship to each other is vague, it sets the tone for most of the country-tinged tunes that follow. An album that establishes a definite somber tone – crying in your beer is perfectly understandable in this case – it evokes isolation and restlessness as Gelb’s characters head toward various personal defeats.
Images of hard travel and its cruel byproduct, loneliness, run through several songs. Gelb’s characters find themselves stuck on the fringes of an unnamed place in an unnamed town, knee deep in the dark stuff. The narrator in “Out There” admits with detachment that he’s “just so home sick/and just so sick of home.” The song provides little hint of resolution, only an acknowledgement of mortality for someone who will become “all grey and faded/all worn and jaded.” Similarly, “Spiral” deals heavily in despair and a hint of apocalyptic and wartime foreboding. Against a backdrop of sparse piano and even sparser background singing, Gelb says that “there’s a lot of people out there having a hard time tonight/among the whispers of revolution and shouts of hang on tight/a lot of crippled hearts out there, some will never mend.”
Other songs take a more sinister turn. “Pitch and Sway,” heavy with political undertones, lets the listener know that some serious shit is about to go down: “way out on the horizon there’s a monsoon waiting… with the darkness here prevailing even stars are taking cover/the sheets held up once for sailing are going to bury another.” The song also features a melodic instrumental break that heightens its overall tension. Even the closing line of “stand up and face your fears in stormy atmospheres” on final track “Well Enough Alone” comes across more like a warning than a statement of perseverance or bravery.
Perhaps because of his background (Gelb is based in Tucson), close ties to “southwestern” bands like Calexico, or the lengthy list of musicians he’s inspired, Gelb is often wrongly characterized as an alt.country poster boy or city father. With songs that incorporate various musical styles and for the most part are not explicitly set in the American Southwest (though that very famous of tragic towns, Galveston, makes an appearance), the album is in many ways more expansive that previous Giant Sand releases and should dispel that image of Gelb in some fans’ minds.
With assists from Isobel Campbell (“Stranded Pearl”), M. Ward (the well-worn trucker tale “Can Do”), and New Pornographer and sometime lingerie auctioneer Neko Case (“Without a Word”), Giant Sand’s proVISIONS is an atmospheric, layered album about loss and isolation. Though a wry sense of humor sometimes tries to punch through (“don’t want to live forever but another generation would be nice,” Gelb dryly jokes on “Spiral”), the overall tone of the album is one of loss and defeat. Rarely has such bleak subject matter sounded so good.