Giant Sand

Heartbreak Pass

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Giant Sand isn't really a band these days; instead, it's a concept that has emerged from the mind of Howe Gelb, and ultimately, that's all for the best. It's hard to imagine how Gelb could get one reasonably sized set of musicians to conjure up the many moods and tonal colors of Giant Sand's 2015 studio effort Heartbreak Pass, but by jumping back and forth between several states, countries, and continents, he's not only come up with an uncommonly rich and imaginative set of performances, he's made an album that scans remarkably well considering the miles he logged putting it together. One tune, "Done," was cut during sessions in Brussels, Crete, and Ottawa, while "Heaventually" features bits recorded in Italy, England, Tennessee, and Arizona. As Gelb says in the liner notes, Heartbreak Pass comprises "3 volumes of 15 songs here representing living 2 lives for 30 years. Don't do the math. It doesn't figure." And he's right, it doesn't, but if the numbers are faulty, the emotions are not, and all that globetrotting does serve a thematic purpose. One of the key recurring themes on Heartbreak Pass is the nomadic life of a musician, and how hard it is to hold on to the people you love when you're hopping on planes, battling jet lag, or simply trying to remember where you are. One of the album's most touching songs, "Home Sweet Home," deals with the nuts and bolts of a touring artist's routine, and the closer is, significantly enough, a rough but sweet duet between Gelb and his teenage daughter, "Forever and Always." This being Giant Sand, Gelb's longing and weariness are filtered through his smoky, warmly downbeat vocals and an arid melodic style that fuses the C&W melodies with enough left turns and electronic seasoning to remind us we're not in Tucson anymore, at least most of the time. But Gelb's songs are always heartfelt behind his occasional eccentricities, his musicians (who include Jason Lytle of Grandaddy, former Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, Grant-Lee Phillips, and Ilse DeLange) do splendid work on Gelb's behalf, and John Parish's production smarts hold the album together gracefully. Heartbreak Pass is, like much of Howe Gelb's best work, an ambitious project that still seems emotionally intimate, and revels in a ramshackle charm that belies how strong the elements truly are -- it's one man's unique vision, and if he's proud of it, well, he certainly should be.

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