Celebrating the band’s 30th anniversary, for their 28th album Howe Gelb has put together a sort of retrospective, revisiting not old songs, but rather the styles the band has embraced over the years. Describing Heartbreak Pass as three volumes of 15 songs, one characterized by loud and lucky abandon, one ‘what they call Americana these days’ and the third ‘the blessed curse of the indie transponder’, by which I think he means an assimilation of US and UK influences. In doing so, he’s called on not just the present lineup, swapping instruments from song to song, but frequent pedal steel collaborator Maggie Bjorkland and Lonna Beth Kelley on harmony and duet vocals with guest appearances that include Grant-Lee Phillips, Granddaddy’s Jason Lytle, Steve Shelley from Sonic Youth, John Parish, Croatian folk singer Lovely Quinces and original Giant Sand drummer Winston Watson.
Gelb’s trademark wordplay gets the ball rolling with the punningly titled Heaventually, a gentle rhythmic sway with acoustic guitar and a recitation by Italian singer Vinicio Capossella. If that hints Lou Reed, then Texting Feist is the full vintage Waiting for the Man era Velvets (although it opens with a Stonesy guitar riff), thought it might have benefitted from doing away with the descent into a Chipmunks finale. The lyrics mention Leonard Cohen, and sure enough he pops up later in Vol 3 as an influence on the smokily sung jazzy-blues Done, complete with soulful female backing.
Elsewhere in the first phase, Hurtin’ Habit is an itchy garage shuffle with an almost tribal drum beat that again has that laconic Reed-like delivery and, nodding to more recent experimental work, Lytle collaboration Transponder is all spacey synths and noise (with former Go-Gos member Paula Jean Brown on bass) in the manner of Grandaddy.
Showcasing Bjorkland’s pedal steel, Song So Wrong ushers in Vol 2 with a rootsy train-rolling rhythm and proceeds through Every Now And Then, which builds from just Gelb’s voice to a Mariachi sway with horns, Spanish guitar and the Voices of Praise gospel choir, the desert dry Man On A String and, another mid-tempo Reedian shuffle, Home Sweat Home’s tale of trying to balance between being a travelling musician and songwriter and a family man playing with the kids as he sings “they upgrade me to seat 2 B, for too many miles flown, but 2 B or not 2 B, ain’t home.”
The final third shifts thing to a late night mood, Gelb taking to the jazz lounge piano on Pen To Paper as Kelly offers a smouldering whisper counterpoint to his nicotined larynx. He stays behind the ivories for the cinematic instrumental Bitter Suite and, with another softly strung out spoken contribution from Kelly, the sad Gypsy Candle with its lush strings, the more musically prickly, but still hushed Cohenesque border ballad House In Order, with what sounds like upright bass, sandwiched inbetween.
The set closes with a sort of passing of the torch, the simple acoustic Forever And Always having been written by his 12-year-old daughter, Indiosa, with whom he also duets. Inevitably, given the tripartite musical nature, the mood shifts from the start of the album to the end, which means it’s a bit of an eclectic listen, but, all of it engages and reminds you of what a diverse, influential and inspired artist he is.
Review by: Mike Davies
Out Now via New West