Howe Gelb - The Coincidentalist (4 stars)

Stripped-down affair from desert-rock maestro featuring host of collaborators

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Howe Gelb - The Coincidentalist

The continuing adventures of Howe Gelb are one of indie rock's most rewarding sagas. From shepherding various incarnations of his desert-rock band Giant Sand between Tuscon and Denmark, revisiting his back catalogue with the aid of a Canadian gospel choir, or kicking back in Andalucia with a band of Spanish gypsies, Gelb's wanderings map a unique sonic nation. Having spent much of the last decade in Denmark, Gelb has recently reconnected with his Arizonan hometown, uniting musicians from both locations on last year's Giant Giant Sand extravaganza, Tuscon. That album was one of Gelb's most ambitious projects to date, a 'country-rock opera' graced by the sonorous tenor of Brian Lopez, a Mariachi horn section and the romantic sway of Cumbia rhythms.

By contrast, The Coincidentalist is a stripped-down affair, putting Gelb's dusty crackle of a voice, guitar plunk and piano clunk centre-stage. Gelb's solo albums have often been an opportunity to hook-up with different musicians, and the core band here is Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and current Giant Sand double bassist Thøger Tetens Lund, joined by all-star guests Andrew Bird, KT Tunstall, M. Ward and Will Oldham. The latter duets with Gelb on album highlight 'Vortexas', making like some bizarro world Merle Haggard and George Jones. This is the first time these sages of off-centre Americana have recorded together, but they go together like sasparilla and cherry, with Oldham's loquacious and over-ripe croon a delicious foil to Gelb's parched murmur. The music is elegant and spare, with soft jabs of electric piano and gorgeous water vapour harmonies floating over Shelley's funky clockwork shuffle.

Tunstall's association with Gelb is one of those happy coincidences the album title alludes to. Relaxed and soulful, she sounds sound right at home on 'The 3 Deaths of Lucky' trading romantic verses with Gelb as he sits behind his saloon bar piano. 'Triangulate' sees her channel the B-52's Kate Pierson, cat-calling over a gutsy soul vamp, while on 'Picacho Peak' she is the Sharon Robinson to Gelb's Leonard Cohen, cushioning his ruminations with moonlit harmonies.

While not the best introduction to Gelb's ramshackle muse (newbies are directed to Giant Sand's elegiac masterpiece Chore of Enchantment or the peyote bubblegrunge of Center of the Universe) The Coincidenalist is a low-key gem, revealing its subtle magic over repeated listens.

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