Howe Gelb was still sorting out what he was doing with Giant Sand when the band recorded its second album, 1986's Ballad of a Thin Line Man, but while it's still rooted in the same sort of rough-and-tumble neo-paisley underground rock as the group's debut, Valley of Rain (released earlier the same year), it sounds a bit more like what Giant Sand would become than its predecessor. The opening cuts ("Thin Line Man" and a hot-wired cover of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower") set the mood with their frantic guitar bashing, their dramatic dynamics ("Thin Line Man" features a dramatic dubwise passage at the midpoint and "Watchtower" opens with a little more than a minute of fiddle scrapings and guitar atmospherics), and Gelb's tough but quizzical songwriting and vocals. But the ambling acoustic tone of "Graveyard" and "Who Am I?," the loopy piano plunking on "Last Legs," and the folk-rock undercurrents of "The Chill Outside" offer clues that Gelb had musical ambitions that flowed in several different directions at once. The addition of Paul Jean Brown gave Giant Sand a two-guitar lineup on these sessions (though Rainer Ptacek, Gelb's finest guitar foil, had yet to go into the studio with the band), and the raucous tone of Gelb and Brown's guitar duels makes the band's rock gestures significantly more exciting. And bassist Scott Garber and drummer Tom Larkins are a more solid and muscular rhythm section their second time out, even if these sessions still sound a touch chaotic. And while two high-profile covers are featured here -- "All Along the Watchtower" and Johnny Thunders' "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory" -- this album is still a very clear reflection of Gelb's musical mind and personality, and he fills both songs with his own spirit. Ballad of a Thin Line Man documents a band that hadn't yet reached greatness, but was well on its way to something special.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming