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Howe 

Confluence (Thrill Jockey)

Wednesday, Jun 6 2001
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Over the past 20 years Giant Sand's dodgy genius Howe Gelb has released an equal number of albums of fractured Americana. Except for a few brief major label flirtations, Gelb's works have been confined to small labels and his own Ow Om imprint. Confluence, his second effort with Thrill Jockey and first under his own name since 1998's Hisser, continues his boundless journey, creating a sound akin to the vast expanses surrounding his Tucson dwelling.

While Gelb often delves into country rock, psychedelia, and free jazz, his most arresting moments come in the form of Neil Young-inspired folk tunes. On Confluence Gelb's forlorn folk sketches -- especially "Hatch," "Available Space," and "Shadow of Where a River Was" (with PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish on drums) -- feature the slightly erratic dynamic shifts and mumbled lines that recall his best work. But where Giant Sand's earlier recordings were murky and cryptic, these tunes are crisp, with distinctly audible vocals and spacious guitar work.

No Gelb album would be complete without reefer-led tangents of debatable quality. The pointless name-dropping and goofy shuffle of "Pontiac Slipstream" recall Tom Petty at his most flippant, while the sputtering organ farts of "Pedal Steel and She'll" seem a bit overripe. On the old Elvis chestnut "Can't Help Falling in Love" Gelb croons like a stoned cowboy as Modesto indie- rockers Grandaddy deliver a fragmented instrumental coda. Somehow, though, the eclecticism doesn't interrupt the flow. Creative sonic editing, sprinkled found sounds, and short piano instrumentals give Confluence a dreamy collage effect. And just when it seems Gelb will float off into the ozone, he returns to terra firma with the naked emotion of the love ballad "Cold" and the expansive Crazy Horse-like guitar fireworks of "Slide Away."

One look at Confluence's cover photo -- a view from behind the wheel of a car pointing down some railroad tracks, a half-drunk cup of beer on the dash -- and it's easy to see Gelb's intentions. Hold onto your drinks; it's going to be a bumpy ride.

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Silas Paine

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