Tuscon: a Country Rock Opera

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Giant Sand were evidently not giant enough for Howe Gelb, the godfather of skewed Americana, so he’s regrouped and expanded further, adding (amongst other things) a Danish string section and a pedal steel player (Maggie Bjorklund) to his already eclectic ensemble. The resulting lineup has fittingly been named Giant Giant Sand and this is the first fruit of their labour, a typically ambitious 19 track “country rock opera” called Tuscon.   Perhaps the most instantly identifiable theme that filters through the first third of the record is a Mexican border crossing which acts as a perfect excuse to utilise Brian Lopez, Gabriel Sullivan and Jon Villa’s wonderfully expressive Mariachi tinged backing (these are at their best on “Forever and a Day” and “Detained”). Unfortunately, as the story progresses into more melodramatic territory, so does the music, and even the most ardent Gelb aficionado will struggle to stay focussed during the more downbeat numbers such as “Love Comes Over You” and “Recovery Mission”. During these slower, more reflective moments it is generally the more stripped back arrangements that work in the band’s favour; “The Sun Belongs To You” (featuring some subtler Mexican flourishes) is a cartoonish love song and one of the album’s best tunes and “Not The End Of The World” is a sultry duet with some fine understated smoky jazz club brass and piano. Such high points, however, are all too often interspersed with over-produced country-by-numbers filler ( “We Don’t Play Tonight”, “Thing Like That”) which tend to make for a hit and miss ride.   This is the epic American mini-series of concept albums, cut it down to a one-hour special (not a HBO special, a special with adverts which would make it about 42 minutes by my reckoning) and you’d have yourself a dusty old gem of a record.