‘Sno Angel – Howe Gelb
Thrill Jockey 167
Without a damn, speckled clue about the two decades Howe Gelb has spent leading Giant Sand, the shiftingly shambolic New Mexico collective, ‘Sno Angel does exactly the trick. Perfectly accessible to the neophyte listener who (like me) hasn’t kept up with what has surely been a nuanced creative dialogue, ‘Sno Angel is the assuredly idiosyncratic work of a writer who knows himself. Joined on all cuts by the 11-piece Voices of Praise Gospel Choir, Gelb brings 14 tracks of relatively spare indie songwriting into spiritually ambiguous focus.
Gelb knows the limits of his voice, and makes that his primary vocal affect. Rarely does he hold a long note. Throughout, Gelb calls on a half-spoken twang to create a melodic throughline where most would reach for vibrato. "Hey, man, why save that hardship for the older you?" he warbles on "Hey Man," the line lilting upwards as his voice clips off the words. It is an enforced modesty: "you" is one syllable, dammit, and don't you forget it. The Voices of Praise hover in sweet harmony behind him. Gelb’s impeccable sparse guitar, Jeremy Gara’s just-the-beat-ma’am drums, and a spare B3 unpretentiously entwine. "Don’t panic your heart," Gelb sings. "Don’t panic your heaaaaaaaaart," the choir coos.
Occasionally, the choir seems like a crutch for less than compelling song structures. "That's How Things Get Done," by Gelb's late collaborator, Rainer Ptacek, has a chorus built for the choir, but a groove that means along fairly aimlessly. Elsewhere, though, Gelb uses the choir to add a valuable layer of uncertainty to the songs' meanings. If Gelb had chosen to sing the chorus to "Neon Filler" himself, it might just be taken as archetypal, though carefully sculpted, indie abstraction: "Light is not the neon filler / not the memory of sun filled days by solar spark / Light is the Moses / splitting the waves in a sea so dark." With the Voices of Praise, one can both see the sea, invisible in the blackness, and the light. It is nice light.