"See the sky a broil and the color of blood orange. Hear the crackin' singe of the front metal screen door hinge. Loving like lovers that know they're going to hang. Sweating bullets and reloading over and over again Rain is only a rumor, over before it has begun." -From the song Blood Orange
Welcome to the mind of Howe Gelb. These lyrics taken from Blood Orange the tenth track on Howe's new cd, The Listener, are a peek at yet another stirring image from Howe, who has for more than two decades painted with a canvas of music and words. While both often times seemed to defy any sequential logic, it's hard to argue with a career that through it's many incarnations- Band of Blacky Ranchette, Giant Sand, OP8, to name but few-has remained vibrant and vital, always taking chances along the way. The Listener is no different. It focuses on Howe's recent sojourn to Denmark where he lived for half of 2002 and recorded the bulk of The Listener. Making the journey so that he could be with his wife as she prepared to give birth to their second child offered Howe the opportunity to create away from his usual supporting cast in Tucson. Home, however, was never that far away, just a flip of a letter as noted above. It would be to Tucson he would return, yet the effects of this new location and the events surrounding why he was there had a profound effect on him, his music, his words and possibly now you -- The Listener.
The Listener begins with the piano based instrumental "Glisten" and leads into the piano driven "Felonius". Both aptly titled as "Glisten" does just that as it shines through your speakers, and in "Felonius" Howe addresses head on the idea he's stealing "Lou Reed licks" on a piano. These songs set a tone for the rest of the record. One of lazy days and late nights, where rebirth comes not in church, but in small doses of recording with new friends and old acquaintances. In the smell of freshly baked bread and a fine house wine, in the touch of the piano and the sound of cowboy boots on cobblestones, Howe best describes the free wheeling life in Denmark:
Getting out of the clutter of my home in the wide open spaces of Tucson, allowed the brain to get wide open in small spaces of Aarhus, Denmark. Life became simple. No daily driving. No summer swelter. Daily routine consisted of just walking around with my three year old son down the crooked lil roads like it was America in the 50's settling in about the same time every day. Having a baby helps the focus of diggin' in soon a piano appeared there to plunder.
It should be noted that Howe's shift from guitar to piano in regards to composing is nothing new. Much of the last few Giant Sand and Howe solo releases featured piano and Howe also released a record of unaccompanied piano pieces (Lull Some Piano) two years ago on his own Ow Om label. When asked about the transition Howe sums it up like this:
The piano was always my earth instrument. The guitar was the space vehicle. When I was younger I was bored with the earth and wanted to travel as far out as I could. These days, the earth is more fascinating than ever.
When it came time for recording Howe called on a cast of people he had recently befriended through a weekly series of shows he was doing at a local café, including a local band he fell for called Under Byen (recently hailed by Rolling Stone/David Fricke as his "favorite new band and record of this year"). Two other musicians there, Thoger T. Lund and Peter Dombernowsky, played a large role in the development of the record and Howe credits them with giving him a "feeling of solid spring that I have not felt in the last five years or so." He goes on to note that "there is a springboard woven within the confines of their instrumentation, and the fresh vibe is extremely conducive." The record also features two stunning vocal turns by Henriette Sennenvaldt (Under Byen) and Marie Frank. Henriette haunts the slight salsa-vibe of "Torque" with a Bjork-like offering, while Marie takes lead on "Blood Orange" with a Williams (Victoria/Lucinda) twang. It was all done over the few months time and money allowed; remember there was a baby on the way.
At the end of 2002 Howe returned home to Tucson where he would "severely funnel and tweak" the almost finished record. Calling in a cast of usual collaborators, among them Sophie Albertsen Gelb, John Convertino, Joey Burns and Nick Luca, along with some new ones, Brett and Rennie of Handsome Family, the roots of The Listener found the soil it needed to grow. A cohesive recording was brought together from disparate locations and a few seasons. The resulting album flows seamlessly, it is a tale without interruption. It's a technique Howe's not only mastered, but prefers.
I think that recording in one place during a relative short amount of time is restrictive. Although I don't mind it, having done it ad nauseum, I have allowed a more natural methodology to occur; recording throughout the year where ever you happen to be the biggest challenge is not losing all the stuff you have recorded along the year. It becomes more entertaining this way. A healthy allowance of gamble. The ultimate residue is variation and therein the comfort lies.
The comfort therein of The Listener is that as the title implies it was crafted by Howe with you in mind. Instead of getting the feeling you're outside listening in, Howe brings you into the songs with him for what is easily one of his most personal records yet, thus the Howe Home moniker. Howe is spelled like Home, but upside down, which in Howe's words "is a fair description of what it feels like usually." Through the years you've gotten to know Howe's music quite well, it's about time he invited you in.