Arizona Amp and Alternator
Arizona Amp and Alternator
here's something about Howe Gelb's catalog that is reminiscent of Ennio Morricone's body of work. Part of it is certainly the noise; both artists have made great use of space and the particular sound it leaves in the listener's ears. More esoteric than that, though, is the persistence of a certain feeling. Both artists have covered varying terrain in their careers but left the fan with a sense of connectedness throughout. Whether scoring spaghetti westerns or Italian shock, Morricone's trademark seems to be a sound of individualistic spirit, the loner with a distinct purpose. Gelb—rocking out, strumming an acoustic guitar, or creating background carnival noises—always manages to find the point that connects people. Whatever his lyrics may say about solitude, his music and voice betray him: This is a man who believes in the power of a crowd.
Perfect then that Gelb’s latest project is a minor indie all-star gathering. Eighteen shambling tracks feature Grandaddy, M. Ward, Scout Niblett, and Jeremy Gara, among others. Gelb, in turn, channels Steve Wynn, Will Oldham, and Hank Williams. And while many artists would only create a mess, Arizona Amp and Alternator becomes a thing which is recommended for consumption. This is the reason you still scour the record bins and travel farther and farther to pledge loyalty to any music store still left standing.
Arizona Amp and Alternator sounds like a barn rehearsal of a great folk-rock band. There is sloppiness and there is precision. A story exists in the whole and between the lines. There are four versions of the title track, which is simply not too much. It plays out like the musical of Harry Dean Stanton's performance in Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas. At various points there's a subtle revealing of information and then the story moves on from there. It's always linear but remembering the whole involves admitting to a certain circuitry ignored at first. That's life, ya know?
"Damned if I discover you don't mean all the world," Gelb sings on "Velvet and Pearl." Then Gelb reveals that, indeed, she doesn't mean all the world. "I'm wrecked most days," he laments later in the song, repeating it for resignation's effect. This is one of Howe Gelb's gifts. He is able to imbue his songs with characters who seem to breathe. These aren't snippets of a story. He finds the ambiguities of human beings and sings them to life. "Man On a String" talks of "...a man who would talk a good game / Words sweet as syrup pouring down like rain." Always, Gelb sounds like a man visiting a town, commenting on the locals from afar, and then sitting down and having a cup of coffee with them all.
Arizona Amp and Alternator is more subdued and sparse than Gelb's last masterpiece, 2000's Chore of Enchantment. The roughness at the edges just adds a different sort of dimension. This isn't as complete as Chore was, but it has its own brand of charm. No matter how it's viewed, it is a great release in a year of much competition. More importantly, a stellar, odd cover of Traffic's "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" guarantees you can't go wrong here.
Reviewed by: Jill LaBrack
Reviewed on: 2005-12-12