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Howe Gelb, maverick artist and godfather to a desert strand of alt-country epitomised by his own band, Giant Sand, and the better known Calexico, continues his long habit of collaborations by meeting up here with a Spanish flamenco band fronted by master guitarist Raimundo Amador. Having only ever heard snippets of Howe Gelb's work and being completely ignorant of flamenco tradition, I have to take this record at face value and can't offer any insight as to how far either side in this project have departed from their traditional metier.
To a fair degree, it honestly sounds like they're each doing their own thing and letting the collective sound come together where it may. There is an inherent fit to be found, I feel, in that Howe Gelb's desert music has a strong sense of being located in the Mexican borderlands where Spanish is frequently spoken and acoustic guitar-based music is where it's at. That Mexican guitar style has an accent that relates closely to these flamenco players - but it's not the same thing, and it's many centuries since their forebears shared a homeland. Besides, Howe Gelb's quite inclined to chuck a fuzzy, aggresive electric guitar into the mix, which stirs things up a bit.
It's Howe Gelb's songs being performed here and he has a very idiosyncratic approach to songwriting, from the banal, wry observations of 4 Door Maverick to story songs - myth-making songs, really - taking you into strange territory that always seems more cinematic than real. Every now and then he gives you a hint of the pop song he could write if he felt like it before veering off again down his own particular trail. He tends to murmur and whisper his lines in a manner vaguely reminiscent of Clint Eastwood's Stranger character in those early westerns: you'd better listen to me, but I'm not going to make it easy for you, he's saying. His style is definitively American - individualist, laconic, cynical - and this is the most obvious of the many contrasts highlighted in this collaboration, because his gypsy band make music that is cultivated, beautiful and communal in spirit - music for a social gathering.
There are songs here when you wouldn't know there was a flamenco band performing because there's nothing remotely Spanish or dance-oriented about the music. One song in particular, Saint Conformity, puts me in mind of The Mothers Of Invention more than anything, whilst One Diner Town has a straightforward, unornamented guitar line that is cut across by a disonant piano as Howe murmurs his disturbing tale of a disturbed mind. All in all, it's difficult to know what to make of this project, to understand what they were trying to achieve. The best, most attractive moments come when Raimundo Amador is in full flow, conjuring astonishingly rich and fluid sounds from his instrument, but the enduring fascination comes from the sense of two cultures turning a light on each other, the better to understand what they're each up to.
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