Tuesday, 14 February 2006

Album Review: 'Sno Angel Like You

Following albums from Arizona Amp & Alternator and Giant Sand, this is Howe Gelb’s third long-player in as many years, but the first self-titled effort since 2003’s The Listener.

The last Giant Sand album was called All Over The Map, a reference to Gelb’s continuing desire to envelop as many genres as possible. It’s therefore no surprise that once again, Gelb attempts to broaden his sonic horizons; here, not only do we have the Gelb trademarks of snare-driven percussion work, wandering acoustic melodies, droll lyrics and endearingly alien electric guitar, but in addition, Gelb has enlisted the help of Canadian gospel choir, Voices Of Praise. This might be titled as a solo album, but long-time fans will know that Gelb rarely works in isolation (his previous collaborators include Neko Case, John Parish, Vic Chesnutt and Grandaddy) and Voices of Praise deserve just as much credit for this album’s success for bringing, as they do, a celestial finesse to seven brand new songs, plus four Giant Sand favourites and three tracks originally by Rainer Ptacek.

But I Did Not gives the first indication of how perfect a marriage this is; the mucky rock that is Gelb’s modus operandi is given a glorious, otherworldly lift by the gospel harmonies, while the disconcerting rock n’ roll sway of The Farm is raised to the heavens by the Voices of Praise. Later, Love Knows (No Borders) offers hushed loveliness before exploding in burst of reverb, and Nail In The Sky begins with some spare acoustic picking before building to an astounding crescendo.

While they almost steal the show, Voices of Praise aren’t the only collaborators on ‘Sno Angel Like You. Jeremy Gara of Arcade Fire is drafted in to play drums and adds a regimented, almost military stomp to Worried Spirits and Paradise Here Abouts. But it is Howlin’ A Gale – the album’s rowdiest point – where Gara’s primal pounding, the luscious vocals of Voices of Praise and the bone-shattering squawk of Gelb’s electric guitar and raspy voice most perfectly combine. Even at this early stage, it seems unlikely that you’ll hear a more dazzling song all year.

The coalescence of rock and gospel has been attempted before, but never with this passion or this artifice. Once the final bar of album closer, Chore Of Enchantment, has played, it’s clear, once again, that Gelb is not just able to master any genre he attempts, but is more than capable of inventing several of his own along the way.

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