Tucson, Arizona, is a beautiful and slightly bizarre-meant in the most affectionate possible way, of course-city in the center of the Sonora desert, where rows of B-52 bombers used to sit bleaching in the sun and where arguably the best date night in town was on the observation deck on top of a two-story tall tiki head at the local mini-golf course. And Howe Gelb is the beautiful and slightly bizarre-also meant in the most affectionate way-songwriter that makes the city and the desert bloom fully into life. His newest with his expanded band Giant Giant Sand (he added the “Giant” and a bunch of Danish musicians to his usual Giant Sand) is a “country rock opera” named after his adopted city, which does for Tucson what Terry Allen did for both Juarez and Lubbock and what Warren Zevon did for Los Angeles. Which is: make a map, a legend, a movie and even a moral all at once. Gelb’s Tucson leaps, creeps and crawls from country to psychedelia to mariachi and cabaret and folk and pure cantankerous tell-it-like-it-is stories about a guy who (like many desert dwellers) doesn’t seem to know where he’s going, and doesn’t seem to care where he came from. (“Tumbleweed Syndrome” is the medical term, I believe.) There’s something like Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and even Jonathan Richman in the way Gelb writes and sings-gruff, honest, and damn sophisticated underneath it all, like the way noir writers Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson could say colossal things with just a few syllables. And there’s something like the city itself in all the songs on this album. If you’re a certain kind of person, it’ll leave you feeling homesick for a place you’ve never been. And if you really are from Tucson, then it’ll make you feel like you’re back home.
Words by Chris Zeigler