If luck be a lady, what be coincidence? Coincidence be the cosmos’s jokester, the dismissible one. Consider that the phrase “I think not” was pretty much invented to answer a rhetorical question – “Coincidence?”
Howe Gelb, the scruffy Arizona puzzler and farsighted leader of the avant-dust collective Giant Sand, has just released The Coincidentalist, somewhere between his 40th and 50th album, by his own rough count.
It’s a dreamy disc of desert folk-rock and a wry, near-weird tumbleweed soundtrack. As to what or who the titular character is, Gelb quizzically explains in the press notes: “The coincidentalist is someone who can read the coincidences but who doesn’t try to figure out their meaning. For if one tries to figure out the meaning, it will be lost. The coincidences aren’t there to figure out but to point the way.”
So, lead on, or whatever, Howe Gelb.
“Welcome to the desert,” he talk-sings languorously on the album’s unassuming opener Vortexas. It is a recollection of his time at Tucson’s Congress Hotel, the place where the Dillinger Gang hid out in 1934, but didn’t do it right and were captured. The hotel still lives in the bank-robber age, historically authentic right down to the vintage radios and dial phones in each room. “The clocks are stuck in rewind,” as Gelb puts it, “living on Tucson time.”
I visited Arizona once, if only to stand on the corner in Winslow to see if a girl in a flat-bed Ford would happen by. It worked for the Eagles, who took it easy and took it often, but not for me. If I had stood there any longer, the only person who would have “slowed down to take a look at me” would have been a police officer acting on a suspicion of vagrancy.
But I digress. Gelb’s cactus cabaret is as similar to early Eagles as peyote is to pot, and there is absolutely no Don Henley or Glenn Frey involved. Instead, helping the enigmatic rhymist is the free-wheeling professional collaborator M. Ward (credited as lead guitarist, on a six-string electric bass), the curious Andrew Bird (on violin) and KT Tunstall, the Scottish singer-songwriter whose 2013 album Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon was produced by Gelb.
Tunstall duets on The 3 Deaths of Lucky, a likable minor-key piano ballad about luck, love and the loss of both. Gelb introduces it as a narrator: “In this film you’ll find …”
I adore Picacho Peak. Its dark manner resembles Nobody Home from Pink Floyd’s The Wall or something similarly sombre from Leonard Cohen, but it’s not dour. “I haven’t flown in my dreams since I was at least 11,” Gelb relates, “so now I sleep when I fly just to get even.”
On the easy-going, slightly psychedelic title track, Gelb pops the question: “Do you believe in the coincidentalist?” (He also says “all together now,” right before a violin solo.)
I believe coincidences mean you’re on the right path, and I believe Gelb knows where he is going, even when all evidence supports the opposite. I’ve listened to The Coincidentalist on a half-dozen occasions, with each listen leaving me a little less lost. Gelb will get me there, I think so.
The week in music:
Top selling albums in Canada for the week ending Nov. 26: With Lady Gaga’s Artpop fizzling – it drops to No. 7 after last week’s disappointing debut at No. 3 – Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP 2 jumped back up to the top spot. Rounding out the Quebec-dominated top five are Celine Dion’s Loved Me Back to Life, François Pérusse’s L’Album du peuple – Tome 9, Valérie Carpentier’s L’été des orages and Hedley’s Wild Life.
Top single: Lorde’s Royals rules the Billboard Hot 100 for a ninth consecutive week, but Eminem’s Rihanna-guested The Monster is getting closer to the throne by the week.
Released this week: Beachwood Sparks’ Desert Skies, Beyoncé’s Life Is But A Dream (DVD), Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones’s Foreverly, One Direction’s Midnight Memories, Thelonious Monk: Paris 1969 (DVD-CD), and Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War by various artists.
Howe Gelb plays Toronto’s Drake Hotel, Dec. 7.