After 30 years and a variety of incarnations, Giant Sand leader Howe Gelb announced last year that he was mothballing the band. At that time, he divulged nothing specific about his next step, but he promised that it would involve piano. Turns out that Gelb is a man of his word, as witnessed on his latest album, Future Standards (Fire Records).
Anyone who has followed Gelb throughout the sprawling history of Giant Sand, his solo career, and his side projects has come to expect a certain amount of unpredictability. While Giant Sand was generally slotted into an alt-country/Americana box, a deeper look at the catalog shows that it was never quite that simple. Understandably, there were some question marks about what the next step for Gelb would be. One wouldn’t have expected him to return as a cabaret-style singer. Joined by Thøger Lund on bass and Andrew Colberg on drums, Naim Amor on guitar, Lonna Kelly on guest vocals, and on tracks “A Book You’ve Read Before” and “Ownin’ It,” a backing band of Joost Kroon on drums, bassist Aram Kersbergen and J.B. Meijers on guitar and production, Gelb seems determined to live up to the album’s title and deliver some “future standards.”
The other big surprise is that Gelb and company play things entirely straight. There’s no weird production touches, sonic explorations, or covert weirdness. It’s largely a piano trio recorded as just that. One would imagine that the songs would sound exactly the same in a bar late at night as they do on record. Yet, Gelb isn’t trying to do an impersonation of a lounge singer. He takes the opportunity of the more spacious surroundings to put an emphasis on the lyrics. As a result, there’s nothing that gets in the way of the playful wordplay, the carefully drawn character studies, and the examinations of love lost. Much of this feels like a Sinatra moment, with Gelb massaging and playing with the delivery to not just sing the songs, but to interpret them and do a bit of acting. As such, there’s an emotional and sonic intimacy to the performances.
Musically, the album is tasteful without being boring, measured without being sleepy, and just this close to being jazz, though that may be splitting hairs. Gelb keeps the construction of the album fairly tight with 12 songs in 37 minutes and most songs averaging around three minutes. So there’s time to be drawn in, but not long enough to zone out. Only history will tell whether Gelb delivers on his promise of future standards, but in the present, it’s a delightful introduction to his next act.