In 1989, well before samplers made it cheap and easy to capture on tape that unpredictable and slippery thing called the thought process, Giant Sand guitarist and songwriter Howe Gelb and drummer John Convertino made a remarkable record called Long Stem Rant (Homestead). Gelb had already released four albums of tough, sunbaked roots rock under the Giant Sand name, but this broke the mold: it was stripped-down and spontaneous, with stream-of-consciousness vocals and few identifiable choruses, and Gelb seemed more like he was carrying on a conversation with his guitar than accompanying himself on it. Gelb and Convertino went on to make a run of interesting--if occasionally indulgent--albums with a variety of extra personnel, bringing in bassist Joey Burns as a full-fledged third member on 1994's brilliant Glum (Imago). Burns and Convertino then grew busy with their own group, Calexico, so the new Chore of Enchantment is the first Giant Sand album in six years. It was recorded for V2 in three different sessions with three different producers--Memphis legend Jim Dickinson, Polly Harvey collaborator John Parish, and New York rocker Kevin Salem--and when that label decided not to put it out, longtime fan Bettina Richards, who runs Thrill Jockey, was all too happy to pick it up. The amount of territory Gelb covers isn't surprising at this point, but never has the group followed his whims with more precision and compassion. Burns and Convertino seem to anticipate his every move, whether he's rolling words around on his tongue ("And I would ponder this disease like a peeling onionskin striptease," he mutters in "Raw") or veering from folksy strumming to Neil Young-ish skree. From poignant, pretty songs like "Shiver" and "No Reply" to soulful grooves like "Temptation of Egg" and "Wolfy" to disjointed breakdowns like "Raw" and "Satellite," Giant Sand's balancing act is more elegant than ever. The live show is always something of a crapshoot--a Lounge Ax gig in January was too loud and crowded to judge fairly, but a South by Southwest showcase in a sit-down theater with a grand piano was spellbinding. Also on the bill are the Scottish quintet Appendix Out, whose recent album, Daylight Saving (Drag City), does little to downplay the band's connection to Will Oldham, who released its first single in 1996. The lyrics, by singer Ali Roberts, reveal a measured romanticism that's not typical of Palace, but he sings in an Oldham-esque vulnerable warble, and the pretty, funereal pop songs borrow similarly from country and folk. Songs: Ohia opens. Thursday, April 27, 10 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western; 773-276-3600.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Carter.