Howe Gelb

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Confluence Review

by Nathan Bush

As the 20th century drew to a close, wayward tunesmith Howe Gelb witnessed a favorable reversal of fortune. Having been dropped by V2, he found a new home at Thrill Jockey and the album that followed, Giant Sand's Chore of Enchantment, became his greatest success. More importantly, the Chicago label provided the singer/songwriter some much needed stability and the freedom to craft albums according to his own peculiar whims. Not necessarily a formula for success, a similar environment produced 1998's Hisser, a collection of fragments that never coalesced. With Confluence however, all the pieces work together and, through some unexplainable alchemy, create a sum greater than any individual parts. Confluence has its share of bizarre moments both lyrically and musically. On "Pontiac Slipstream," Gelb links bluegrass legend Bill Monroe to speed metal and John F. Kennedy's assassination to Jimi Hendrix's famous pyrotechnics at the Monterey Pop Festival. On "Vex (Paris)," the singer is found backstage, teaching two French girls the song you are about to hear him perform ("Vex (Tucson)"). But every excursion lacking polish is balanced by something truly stunning. Gelb even manages to avoid over-sentimentality on a sublime reading of "I Can't Help Falling in Love." More than ever, the influence of Neil Young is palpable. Occasionally, the singer's spirit takes hold of Gelb's own voice in instances of eerie similarity. More often, Young's style is assimilated in a less obvious fashion. Gelb's music has an undeniable twist all its own. A spectrum of tones and textures intermingle in the production, occasionally protruding in attempt to disturb the balance. Only when stretching out on the closing "Hard on Things" and "Slide Away" does the music fail to soar the way one might hope. With the preceding material, Gelb proved capable of improving his craft, producing a work of rare beauty 20 years into his career.

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