Howe Gelb's 2005 effort with Arizona Amp and Alternator ambles out of his mind like usual, kicking dust from its denim verses and finding side doors into moments that open into spacious desert ballrooms. The drums drop in late on opener "Velvet and Pearl," and tick along like a rusty generator; Gelb's vocal is on top of the microphone, blowing into it, but his "Little late to find out you meant all the world" lyric is perfectly, haphazardly heartbreaking. The atmosphere grows with "Where the Wind Turns the Skin to Leather," while their cover of the Traffic gem "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" (with Grandaddy in support) plays it only sort of straight -- like a desert motel that only cleans the top sheet, there's dirt and cynicism in its hollows. Of course these are the places Gelb has always inhabited, whether in his own material or the expanses of Giant Sand, so Arizona Amp and Alternator's brushed acoustic guitars, stretches of squelch, and shuffled vocals will sound familiar to his devotees. Yeah, familiar like the worn brass rail of a tavern. Gelb has so many songs and stories stuck in his brain, Arizona Amp is just the latest crumpled brilliant letter from Americana's unofficial poet laureate. His All Over the Map collaborator Henriette Sennenvaldt returns on the eerie "Man on a String" -- over the song's rickety piano, her flat phrasing and mournful keen actually suggest Will Oldham -- and Marie Lorette Friis appears for the duet "Baby It's Cold Outside," where Gelb smacks his lips like a lecherous Tom Waits and changes the mercury of the original (but not the title) to match the Southwest's heat. Like so much of Gelb's work, there's the sense with Arizona Amp that you're seeing every five scenes of a film. "Vows" is full of hope -- "Let's fill the nest with an egg or two" -- but "Can Do Girl" boils in reverb and claustrophobic memory while the Neil Young-ish elegy "Bottom of the Barrel" (again with Grandaddy) is a cosmic mystery spot that isn't on any map. Arizona Amp and Alternator also features four versions of its title track, each tweaking the lyrics and arrangement to shift the meaning from touching autobiography, to rambling honky tonk duet, to tall tales told around the popping embers of a blue campfire. Listen.
AllMusic Review by Johnny Loftus