Chore of Enchantment
Giant Sand main man Howe Gelb once quipped to me that much of his work falls into the "that which doesn't kill you makes you stronger" category. So his new album is striking, as much for its magisterial sonic beauty as for its sheer philosophical rightness. First weathering the death of his soul brother, Tucson's slide-guitar maestro Rainer Ptcek (to whom Chore of Enchantment is dedicated); then watching bandmates Joey Burns and John Convertino convert their side project, Calexico, into an increasingly popular gig that threatened to eclipse the mother ship; and, finally, suffering the indignity of being dropped by his label, V2, after a grueling two years' worth of recording sessions with three separate producers, Gelb has emerged with a deeply soulful record.
The facts: The tracks on Chore were recorded with Jim Dickinson in Memphis, Kevin Salem in New York City and Bearsville, and John Parish (of PJ Harvey fame) in Tucson. In addition to the name producers, a host of guest players turned out, including Juliana Hatfield, Evan Dando, Paula Jean Brown, Neil Harry, Alan Bezozi, Sofie Gelb, Rob Arthur and others. (Touchingly, a tape of Ptcek closes the album.)
The record's lengthy gestation was due, in part, to V2's insistence that Gelb keep fine-tuning it -- the resulting irony being that the company dropped Giant Sand for turning in what it deemed to still sound "too indie," leaving Gelb to sell his stock of prerelease promo discs via the Giant Sand Web site, until Chicago's esteemed Thrill Jockey made a pitch for the album.
I'd reckon both parties came out ahead with the deal. Chore kicks off on an instant high point, a slab of barrio noir titled "(well) Dusted (for the millennium)," which brings together the unlikely musical partners Mellotron, cello and sitar.
From there, things get even more interesting, with no paths traveled twice: a churning neopsychedelic tune called "X-Tra Wide"; a funky bit of Wurlitzer-driven Memphis soul, "Temptation of Egg"; the dark, ominous "Wolfy," which recalls recent Tom Waits (Gelb's vocal croak, like Waits, has seasoned and aged into a formidable instrument); "Shiver," a country-folk tune spiced with pedal steel, banjo and Hammond B-3; the sweetly waltzing "No Reply," which brims with spectral guitar twang and gentle, droning keyboards.
Twinned to the music, of course, is Gelb's patented lyrical inscrutability. This time around, he chooses to print the lyrics, meaning you can mull over his lines to your endless fascination. Still, a number of them jump out. Through the songs' sequencing, Gelb seems to have ordered his thoughts as a precise chronicle: (a) "Dumped by what he thought he knew/Now he sits slumped and don't know what to do." (b) "Raising up the stakes and betting the pot/Seldom are the breaks, in case you forgot." (c) "The wolves are all around the door step/Circling like they do/Now is not the time to forget/What there's still time to do." (d) "See the sky bursting open/See our surprise/Down here in the crowd and hoping/See how it opens our eyes?/Something will open our eyes." (e) "When I woke up it was a new morning/I was only sick from the night before."
These are all snatched from context, of course, but knowing the recent history of this band and of this album, it's impossible not to glean the subtext -- how the chain of adversity ultimately gets broken through regaining one's faith, by rebirth. (And, just to add a tidbit of Gelb's personal data, new birth: During the making of Chore, his wife Sofie gave birth to their child.) Chore of Enchantment, indeed -- it can take a lot of work to keep life's beauty and mystery alive. But for Gelb, clearly, it's worth the ongoing effort.
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In a sense, Giant Sand's having spawned Calexico turned out to be fortuitous, for no doubt it was the latter's Chicago connections (via its label, Quarter Stick, an imprint of the venerable Touch & Go) that helped bring the former to its new home. Another Windy City connection now rears for Calexico's four-song, 12-inch EP Descamino (subtitled Black Light Sketches), one Bundy K. Brown of Directions and Tortoise fame. His remixology skills grace the side-length "Dia de los Muertos . . . ," a composition that grafts portions of several Calexico tracks onto a dreamy template and perhaps qualifies more as a "translation" in the Bill Laswell sense than a traditional "remix."
As the press sheet accompanying the EP outlines, Brown took a drum intro from "Over Your Shoulder," some vibes from "Missing" and acoustic bass and maracas from "Fake Fur" (all tracks on the '98 Calexico album The Black Light), plus slide guitar from "Roll Bar" (from the '98-'99 Road Map CDEP). Tortoise's Doub McCombs and Chicago Underground Duo's Rob Mazurek laid down some additional bass and cornet lines, then Brown worked his reinvention wizardry. And "Dia de los Muertos . . ." is unlike anything else in the Calexico lexicon, ushering forth in a percussive mist as hazy as noontime heat lines shimmering over asphalt, then giving way to minimalist fretboad scrapes, Mazurek's lonesome muted horn, the muttering, echoey tones of vibraphone, low (almost subliminal) wandering bass and, in general, a ghostly, hypnotic ambiance fully befitting of the track's title.
Three songs grace side B: a refried version of "Chach," courtesy of Tucson DJ Tasha Bundy, that has a low-key Latino funk-cum-lounge-lizard feel (brownsploitation cinema, anyone?); "Still Missing" by German duo Kassel Krew, parched and desolate in its lo-fi minimalism; and a new Calexico composition titled "TTT Truckstop," which finds Burns and Convertino going deeply ambient, the treated pedal steel (from Lambchop's Paul Niehaus) and vibraphone expertly mimicking the sounds of distant 18-wheelers careening past on the highway.
Given all this experimentation, it's impossible to predict what the next Calexico full-length will sound like. Still, the prospects are tantalizing. The music of both Calexico and Giant Sand is like a long nighttime drive through the flat desert. Differences in the groups' musical topography sometimes appear with the utmost subtlety, but by journey's end, one can't help but be profoundly altered by the experience.