Dust Bowl, 2013
Just over a week ago we left Tucson to go see some form of Giant Giant Sand opening for Rodriguez. The night had been really special already, so by the end of the show I wasn’t expecting anything as we walked over to the merch area. After all, Howe had said from onstage that they’d forgotten to bring any CDs to sell, as is often the case. Lesson of the night: don’t believe Howe. After looking around to make sure there were no Good Luck Suckers hats around, we were ready to move on when someone pointed and asked “What is Howe’s head doing there?” The man manning the merch could offer no explanation beyond “It’s a solo thing by one of the guys in the opening band.” A new solo record I hadn’t even heard of!? Even after all the excitement of the show, the night was really going above and beyond.
After about a week of living with this album and wondering and pondering and re-verifying the silence about it online, this past Sunday Dust Bowl was finally released onto the beyond-Tucson wilds. So it seemed like a good time to write a bit again, all risk of spoilers now gone.
The record is warm and uncomplicated: just Howe and some strings or keys most of the time. According to the scant information on the CD sleeve itself the album was recorded mostly in Howe’s home, and it shows. With the beautiful home-captured textures that many of the tracks contain (in Reality or Not you can even hear the birds that happened to be singing outside the window that day − a sliver of reality that snuck its way into the recording), Dust Bowl seems more closely related to Hisser than to Tucson, which is perhaps one of the biggest, most theatrical and hybridized albums in recent Sand memory. In terms of the sound and feel of it, this is the least giant of sands. To me this feels like a reaction to keep things balanced in terms of huge performance vs. small, intimate listen. But who knows − this version of Forever and a Day has been up on Bandcamp since 2011, so it’s hard to tell if these recordings are siblings from the same set of sessions or a loose gathering of pre- and post-Tucson pieces. Questions keep showing up: are there any perfect harvests on this record? Any songs that haven’t been written?
As for the packaging, it’s a beauty. The front cover is a portrait of Howe looking very Dust Bowl-appropriate in a gorgeous print (wet plate collodion? Van Dyke brown print? One wonders.) The photograph is typo-fully credited to Edwin Verstappen; the actual author is Belgian photographer Erwin Verstappen, who has worked with Giant Sand and others before. Verstappen created this image as part of a series made using a large format camera mounted with an 18th century lens. Makes sense.
The batch of redelivered songs in this record is a generous one: several of my Tucson favorites (Lost Love, Windblown Waltz, Forever and a Day and Plane of Existence) plus Man on a String, previously heard in The Band of… Blacky Ranchette in 1985 and twenty years later in Arizona Amp and Alternator. This version captured me more than the previous two, with its dark moody feel and brand new intro. Just hear this here hiss! Lovely. The fourth on the album, this is the first track with some bass and percussion ambling alongside Howe and his guitar. It also features the most flagrant case of singing-away-from-the-mic during the chorus, which only helps to further the homey and intimate vibe. There’s even a suspiciously laptop-made-sounding sound somewhere in there, in case you hadn’t found an excuse to chuckle yet.
Speaking of chuckles, I was tickled by the banjo and vocals song John Deere. It is a hilarious narrative of envy and involuntary theft, when someone covets their neighbor’s new tractor a bit too much and after a boozy night ends up having to fantasize about the tractor rescuing him from jail. Also amusing but in a funny-creepy way is The Mystery Spot, in which Howe and his piano sound like they are singing up from the bottom of a lake. The story and the sound alternate between goofy clangy jazz (“welcome to the mystery spot!”) and slower eerie stuff about Langley and Homer, who “retreated in 1909” and whose “bodies were found there between newspapers and twine”.
The unassumingly-titled A Coffee Song starts out with the anxious blunderings of someone who did not get his morning caffeine (“didn’t make me any coffee, ain’t no time to make it now”), and goes on to become a meditation on the world and its worries (“the morning’s come a-callin and the world is falling down”). Coupled with the serious and silly subjects set side by side, the jumpy quality of the song − like the anxiety of a caffeine-deprived junkie − results in uneasy, tense humour. And it only goes to confirm what coffee savvy people know: without caffeine, “the sun ain’t a-rising like it always did before.”
I have to say, though, that after just a few listens the first track, Dust Bowl, set itself apart from the others. It sets the tone for the album in its immediacy and the images of erosion and hardship it presents; this record is about difficult times. More importantly, however, it’s an absolutely beautiful song, just Howe and his piano, creaking pedals and all, having a quiet conversation about dust and wind, the future and the past.
Something I enjoyed about this song is how it plays with expectations. It pulls a great trick with the lyrics, where it messes with space-time by setting you up to think it’s about about the present, and then flips it on you. Watch.
−Been the hottest year on record, been the coldest winter to date…
−Oh, so it’s about climate change in 2013.
−…here in 1936.
−Ah. I see.
[Interesting fact: tonight I was told that this is still the case, as 1936 remains the record year for highest and lowest temperatures in the Dust Bowl area.]
In a way this song seems to say “you think it’s bad now, but that was so much worse, and it wasn’t getting any better for a while.” It also holds my favourite line in the album: world-spin swallowed whole.
The night of the Rodriguez concert the long dark drive into town was the perfect backdrop for a first encounter. The city and the traffic quieted down as we drove past everything, just listening. In the end we just drove around aimlessly for a while so we could finish the album. My friend summarized it beautifully: “it was good to be moving forward, fitting with the feeling that there’s before you listen and after you listen, and that they are different places between which you travel.”
Because of that first meeting, at the beginning I thought this was a record for nighttime, darkness and headphones. After hearing it in different situations though, it seems like it’s actually for dappled sunlight and backlit bees in a late spring afternoon; perhaps even early evening drives through the desert. Either way, it’s a beautiful other side to the coin that is Tucson. The gap out there for a solo Howe album hadn’t been filled in some time; Dust Bowl was a most welcome gift.