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Howe Home | The Listener (Thrill Jockey)
"A weak lounge lizard disc with crummy strings," bemoaned one visitor to the Giant Sand website on the day that this sixth solo album from Howe Gelb (currently working under the Howe Home alias) hit the shops.  'The Listener' it seems, is the first Howe-related album, in a prolific run of releases since Giant Sand's incredible 'Chore of Enchantment' (2000), to face scorn from sections of the usually unwavering fanbase.  Which is quite baffling in a way, because this is the album Howe has been hinting at for some time now.  Anyone who has experienced his sublime (and sometimes surreal) solo shows over the couple of years - either in the flesh or via last year's semi-official live bootleg 'Pedalless' - should know that Howe's proclivity for playful piano-led romanticism has been the order of many recent days. So if the great man fancies releasing an album that's more 'Casablanca' than Crazy Horse, then why should we be at all surprised?

Arguably the best thing Howe has put to the public since 'Chore,' 'The Listener' is a lush and opulent treat, the perfect Yang to the Ying of the last 'official' solo album 'Confluence' (2001).  Whereas the latter found Howe in rather loose and lo-fi mode (as a deliberate reaction to the protracted and polished recording of 'Chore'), piecing together song fragments recorded at various global locations, 'The Listener' is far a more seamless and settled affair.  Recording a sizeable slice of the album during several months spent living in Aarhus, Denmark with native band Under Byen (with a second and shorter session with the regular Giant Sand tribe in Tucson, Arizona) has undoubtedly been a positive thing for Howe's restless muse.  It seems to have forced him to put a little more structure into the recording arrangements, allowing his guest-players to bring plenty of texture to the proceedings.  The ornate mixture of piano, Latin-jazz percussion and soothing strings provides more than comfortable bedding for some of Howe's most reflective (and indeed mischievous) songs to date, songs which find him questioning the eternal cycles of life with well-weathered wisdom and sun-scorched wit.  
"The piano is stealing Lou Reed licks/Licks that he probably stole/I wish they were Duke Ellington's/I wish we'd never get old," he quips with a twinge of sadness on the wonderful Felonious.  On the percussion-led knees-up B 4 U (Do Do Do), Howe seems to withdraw his much-debated retirement plans, for the time being at the least; "There's so much to do/Do before you die/Do do do before I die/Going to find someone like you/To give all my love to/Until the ocean of commotion all runs dry."  Elsewhere, the tongue-in-cheek Lying There seems to celebrate Howe's cult and commercially untainted existence with comedic aplomb; "You can acquire untold riches/Just by giving everything away/Show the world how much you hate Christmas/By celebrating it each day."

However, mirth aside, there's still plenty of space for the same strand of contemplative tranquillity that made 'Chore' such an understated classic, as evidence here on the touching Jason's List and the closing Lemmy N Emmy.  Those feeling deprived of the scratchy guitars that characterised 'Confluence' will find pockets of comfort too, especially amongst the whispery acoustics of The Nashville Sound (laid-down with Lambchop's Mark Nevers) and the crumpled country of Cowboy Boots.

If you don't manage to fall in love with this particular Howe-branded long-player, then there are at least seven albums (no, really) of old/new material, planned for release over the next year, that might do the trick instead.  This swollen schedule is set to include a new effort from The Band of Blacky Ranchette (Giant Sand's long-dormant pure country alter ego) as well as an intriguing "drum and bass thing with no bass" made in collaboration with Giant Sand/Calexico regular Nick Luca.  Furthermore, anybody who is concerned that Howe has permanently given up on guitar-wrecking duties in favour of piano comfy stools, should rest easy, as he recently proclaimed, "The sound of that guitar beckons.  The piano is my first love, I am just feeling the surfacing of something louder."  But that's all still to come, 'The Listener' is now, and quite frankly there couldn't have been many better ways to usher in the next phase of Howe's convoluted career than this.  Highly recommended.

Adrian Pannett
March-April 2003