Howe Gelb – Future Standards (Fire)

I have to confess my heart dipped a little when I saw the title of this album. Recent albums with the word standard in them by Dylan, Elvis Costello, and even Willie Nelson have seemed to me to signal that the performer has given up on their own songwriting and is content to just serve up disappointing covers of old standards. If that wasn’t bad enough here comes a singer/songwriter  from Tuscon, Arizona  supposedly writing new standards?

I really shouldn’t have worried, with 27 albums with his now defunct band Giant Sand and 21 solo albums under his belt,  he really is an old master. The accompanying Press blurb manages to set the scene nicely for solo album number 22  “– irresponsible lovers are canoodling in semi-lit booths, the jukebox is playing some old tunes by Frank and there’s some people over there who never want to fall in love again. It’s the last bar still open and the piano player mooches over to the battered grand. This guy, we know, is great. He expertly and succinctly slides in words like “iconoclast”, “apropos”, “tumult” and “ludicrous”, he even name checks Constantinople”.  Future Standards is as much a description of a style as it is a bunch of songs.

This choice of style may come across as quite suprising given that most of his previous work has been re-inventing what some people call Alt-Country,but it is a pleasant change to find him choosing musical accompiament from largely a  Jazz palate. It suits his chosen accompaniment and laconic delivery very well. He has some help from Lonna Kelley  on Terribly So and a Book You’ve Read Before  and she provides some sweetness to the rough in a Julie London kind of way. Her vocal entries are like a glass of cool water on a stinking hot night. Other band members include Naim Amor who unfurls Django like guitar and  the Tucsonian drummer, and Village Vanguard bartender, Arthur Vint  who adds brushstrokes, rim shots and cymbals when required. The album was started in Amsterdam and finished off in New York and that mix of late night Chet Baker and Thelonious Monk infuses the performances. Perhaps most suprisngly of all, did I know Howie played such lyrical Piano? I did not. He plays beautifully throughout.

Clear  manages to squeeze in a bit of Getz/Gilberto like Bossa Nova which challenges my mid 90’s assertion to never listen to anything that sounds like The Girl From Ipanema again after a particularly traumatic custard square experience. It was a pitstop cafe in Timaru and we had interrupted the drive back from Dunedin to Chritchurch to refresh ourselves. The Girl From Ipanema was played once, then again and again and again for the full 20 minutes it took us to consume our food and drink. When my friends and I questioned the wisdom of the repeated song we were answered with “But it’s such an amazing song, you can never get sick of it” Crikey. Similarly you might argue that  a whole album of Jazz tinged numbers may grate after 20 minutes, but here they are executed with such panache and lyrical oddness (World Peace Declared/No Problems Spared/… You might as well put screendoors on Submarines/or build a snowman while summering/) that it remains pleasingly fresh throughout.

By the time we get to the tail end of the album with the piano only Madman In Charge, May You Never Fall In Love and Sweet Confusion, it’s clear Howie has mastered yet another genre of music. Fill up a glass of wine, light the candles, open the French doors and drink in the delight that is Future Standards. Suprisingly refreshing.

Brent Giblin