Howe Gelb’s career may seem intended to prove the adage that a million monkeys tapping on typewriters would, by sheer chance, produce one Shakespeare. Except Howe alone is the million monkeys.
But that analogy sells the Giant Sandman short. His successes are careful gestures that only look like shrugs, the product of abundant talent in the service of an especially wayward muse. The phrase “scattershot brilliance” applies to most anything he’s done, and Confluence is no exception.
The detailed character study “Wicked Widow’s Peak” is a winner, as is “Blue Marble Girl”, which opens with a couplet so simple and sweet it melts Gelb’s gruff facade: “Did you ever have one of those days/When you love the town you live in?” Equally successfully but infinitely more complex is “Pontiac”, in which Gelb reveals the secret connections between John Kennedy, Jimi Hendrix, and the Father of Bluegrass (“The road to ‘Hey Joe’ is paved with the grassy knoll/and a little Monroe”) while his guitar stutters and squalls.
Best of all is a halting, off-key cover of “Can’t Help Falling In Love”. Like Cat Power’s recent deconstruction of “Satisfaction”, this version strips away the melodrama of the Elvis staple to reveal the song’s elemental soul.
Weaker moments are mostly buried at the end of the hour-long album. By this time, all those for whom Confluence is a first foray into Howe Gelb’s funhouse will have long since been either frustrated or seduced.
Gelb has help from a full house of familiar talent, including Kevin Salem, PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish, indie-rock oddballs Grandaddy, and Giant Sand mainstays John Convertino and Joey Burns.
Giant Sand’s most recent disc, last year’s Chore Of Enchantment, was the most concise and consistent of Gelb’s twentysomething releases. In comparison, Confluence pales — but the adage only promised one Shakespeare, after all.