It is nothing short of astonishing how after a long career leading iconic southwestern gothic pioneers Giant Sand, and then as a solo artist, Howe Gelb is arguably at the peak of his career as a songwriter. His latest album, Not on the Map – streaming at Bandcamp – is a serendipitously Lynchian collaboration with Belgian art-rock ensemble the Colorist Orchestra. As you would expect just from the artists involved, this is a lock for one of the best albums of 2021.
The group open with Counting On: “The frontlines are closing in,” Gelb mutters as the strings flutter and Sep François’ vibraphone rings eerily. It could be an especially lush Botanica number from that band’s most orchestral, mid-zeros peak.
Gelb’s voice has weathered like a good whiskey over the years, best evidenced here by his unselfconsciously saturnine delivery throughout the cover of the Glenn Campbell countrypolitan hit Gentle on My Mind.
Pieta Brown contributes two songs of her own, first joining Gelb in a duet, Sometimes I Wish, a fondly nocturnal waltz. Karel Coninx’s viola floats starkly over the enveloping backdrop from violinist Jeroen Baert, Gerrit Valckenaers’ bass clarinet and Tim Vandenbergh’s bass. Wim De Busser’s piano is a light in a windowshade alongside the twinkling percussion. Brown’s other duet here is Sweet Pretender, a hazy country ballad.
Percussionists Kobe Proesmans and Aarich Jespers anchor the lilting latin-tinged groove in Dr Goldman, a distantly sinister, enveloping twilight tableau: imagine a warmer, less synthy version of Australian legends Flash & the Pan flown in to the Arizona desert..
The closest comparison to Leonard Cohen here is Thyne Eyes, a semi-bolero gently spiced with De Busser’s plucky prepared piano and the gleam from François’ vibes. Gelb half-sings, half-whispers Ruin Everything in his weathered baritone, the album’s most hypnotic, atmospheric, subtly gospel-tinged ballad. “Now you’ve mastered the art of the undone,” he intones.
The album’s most unselfconsciously gorgeous track is Tarantula, a dusky opening-credits theme with Gelb on what sounds like a reed organ. A single, fleeting moment of menace from the bass clarinet could be the most breathtaking point here.
Vandenbergh’s spare, dancing bass gives More Exes a loping Big Lazy groove behind Gelb’s evocative, understatedly menacing railroad trestle scenario. The group close the record with the title track, a classic Gelb noir bolero awash in aching strings, keening highs from Valckenaers’ glass bowls and some deliciously uneasy, microtonal work from Coninx.