Tucson's Howe Gelb is a premier American songwriter, the kind of guy whose career could only happen in the rock 'n' roll era. He's upheld its wanderlust Neil Young spirit from the center of the Giant Sand collective (Calexico's step-paterfamilias) for more than 20 years now. Over the years, he's gravitated toward grander artistic schemes and thoughts, changing the way he takes in the world; the red desert, with its dusty jazz and Mexicali and Western echoes, and fatherhood have figured prominently. Since he never had a hit, the moneyed, major-label rock life long ago has dissipated as a professional option. So now in his 40s, happily married to a Danish woman, Gelb's artistic life has become self-sufficient and cultured.
The Listener, the umpteenth project he's undertaken in the 21st century (the full list is available at giantsand.com), is the kind of diary dialogue artists leading lives of cultured satisfaction get involved in not to get fat. Much of it was scrawled in Denmark, where Gelb spent the summer of 2002 as his wife prepared to give birth to their second child. As diarists tend to do, he veers toward self-indulgence; an unedited, Mose Allison nature to some of these pieces needs to be sent to its room without supper.
Yet even as he fills his lungs with glibness, Gelb never fully swallows his tongue, always remembering to intimate "good luck" to the album's namesake. There's soul all over: in gorgeous instrumentals that recall sultry Argentine nights ("Piano") and Morricone soundtracks ("Glisten"); in acoustic off-the-cuff small wonders (the shoulda-been love letter "Nashville Sound"); and in one classic apocalyptic love song ("Blood Orange," sung by a Dane named Marie Frank with husky, blue pipes). So while it's not clear if people still care enough to discover thoughtful songwriting voices rooted in the spirit of purple mountains' majesty, it's equally unclear whether Gelb cares what they think. Like a vintage R. Crumb mud flap, he'll just "keep on truckin.'"