Maybe Giant Sand’s new album Heartbreak Pass is inspired by a genuine middle-age heart attack. Founder and only constant band member Howe Gelb sings about everyday existence as if coming from a life renewing, post-traumatic point of view.
But as most middle-agers experiencing an eye-opening realization of mortality can attest, living life with profound respect grows tiresome. Eventually the grind of living anchors itself back into place and the mortal clock is again damned and ignored. In Heartbreak Pass, there seems to be children, grandchildren, wives, and ex-wives to contend with.
Gelb wants to stop and smell the roses, or as in the case here, contemplate the flickering wick of a gypsy candle (on “Gypsy Candle”), but familial and financial responsibilities rob him of his selfish perspective. While singing a revelatory appreciation for the mundane, he eyes a peaceful and secure future of sunsets, rocking chairs, and children playing on the lawn. “When this day is done…” he lazily and melodically repeats on the same titled track, as if having all the time in the world to soak up a Burt Bacharach-styled easy listening afternoon, a sound this album often reflects.
The band – Gelb and a revolving door of players over the years – celebrates its 30th anniversary with Heartbreak, and except for the Euro synth and London fog-inducing sound of “Transponder” (lavishly produced by Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle), it sounds like a Howe Gelb solo album. The songs are strictly singer-songwriter style, and any additional musicianship – solo trumpet, lead guitar, etc. – sounds distant and alienated, like from another recording session.
Giant Sand’s aging sun is best captured in “Texting Feist,” in which Gelb surrenders the studied observation that “The days become a Leonard Cohen medley.” Indeed, Cohen’s breezy soft acoustics and low-key vocal musings are an inspiration here, as is the lounge piano tinkering of Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner.
Gelb has stripped away the cluttering pop music adornments normally found in Giant Sand’s music, and has left lovely bare bones. “Gypsy Candle” and “Pen to Paper”, vocal duets with Lorna Beth Kelley, are particularly stark and minimal, as if contemplating a long and languid day’s journey into night.
And yet as sweet and solemn as this all is, I’d prefer he’d gone more in the direction of “Transponder,” in which he escapes his bursting-at-the-seams home life tranquility for a dutiful concert tour of Europe. Here, with layers of minor chord keyboards, sound effects, and stoner observations (“Across the pond you’re a transponder”), he ignites the flame that keep the home embers, however dull and domestic, burning.
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