Howe Gelb seems to be everywhere at the moment. Not only has he released two solo efforts and a Giant Sand album in the last 18 or so months, but Fire have concurrently reissued a bunch of Giant Sand records with bonus tracks and all the trimmings. At last count, there are over 30 Giant Sand albums and another 20 or so Gelb solo releases, not to mention the handful of records he’s put out under other guises. Safe to say that writer’s block isn’t a problem for him.
This box set collects the six albums that were released commercially by the Tucson, Arizona songwriter, from his 1991’s debut, Dreaded Brown Recluse, to 2010’s Alegrías, plus 2009 live album ’Sno Angel Winging It and Some Piano, a selection of piano pieces he’s issued over the years. It doesn’t include his two 2013 solo records, which, having just been released, was presumably deemed too excessive. Still, with bonus tracks and sleevenotes galore by Gelb, excess is the order of the day – there’s nothing little about Little Sand Box. Sure, eight discs, 20-some years and 131 songs represents a mere fraction of his actual back catalogue, but it’s still a hell of a lot to digest.
Certainly, Little Sand Box operates as an accessible overview of Gelb’s career, whittling it down to the bare essentials. But, even then, it raises questions about his prolificacy: just how much is too much? There’s no doubting Howe’s immense talent but, though each album stands alone individually, bundled together here the material becomes slightly indistinct. While different facets of his musical personality are revealed, when playing the albums back-toback- to-back, the immensity of Gelb’s natural terrain starts to take its toll.
It means, however, that the gems truly stand out, like scattered oases to a parched desert traveller: the ominous noir of 4 Door Maverick; the sublime Lou Reedisms of Felonious (a tribute to the late, great New Yorker that’s all the more poignant in the wake of his recent death); the humorous lilt of Shy Of Bumfuck; Gelb’s beautiful, parse and forlorn cover of Can’t Help Falling In Love; the melancholy, country twang of Wild Dog Waltz; the off-kilter, oddball piano pop of Cold; the echo of Leonard Cohen that inhabits Broken Bird And The Ghost River; the jaunty folk of Always Horses Coming.
All of these are stunning examples of Gelb at his best. But there’s a lot here that doesn’t match up: vast expanses that feel superfluous and excessive, offering little in the way of reward. But if it takes so much sand to produce those great dunes, rather that than nothing at all.