In early 2016, Howe Gelb announced that, three decades after the release of Giant Sand's first album, he decided the time had come to retire his long-running alt-country band, issuing a statement in which he declared, "30 years seems an adequate number to aptly utter 'I kinda quit.'" Apparently, that qualifying "kinda" was included for a good reason, and in the fall of 2018, Gelb revealed he had put together a new lineup of Giant Sand and was returning to duty. But where to start over? From the beginning, obviously, and the first album from Gelb's new incarnation of the group, Returns to Valley of Rain, finds him re-recording the 11 tunes from Giant Sand's 1985 debut, Valley of Rain. Exactly why Gelb would make a fresh start by revisiting a handful of songs he cut in the mid-'80s is hard to fathom, especially since he and his bandmates attack these songs in a manner that's noticeably different than the original recordings but not so much that it qualifies as reinvention. If the production on Valley of Rain marks it as a product of the era of too much digital reverb, Returns boasts a cleaner and more direct sound, and the vague jangle of the 1985 recordings is replaced by a harder, buzzier guitar attack; remarkably, Giant Sand sound more like a rough-and-tumble garage band in 2018 than they did the first time they cut these tunes. The guitar attack of Gelb, Gabriel Sullivan, and Annie Dolan is scrappy but full-bodied, and drummer Winston Watson and bassists Thøger T. Lund and Scott Garber hit hard enough without overpowering the natural dynamics of the performances. And there's a welcome spontaneity to the sessions that flatters the dusty introspection of Gelb's lyrics and the determined drift of the melodies. Figuring out the why of Returns to Valley of Rain is probably fruitless, but if Gelb wants to move forward into the past with Giant Sand, at least he's doing so with style and swagger.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming