The word “gospel” comes from the old English “Good News.” The word is typically reserved for the four books of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) or to describe the call-and-response style of singing employed by a Gospel Choir like the Voices of Praise that Howe works with on his new Thrill Jockey album ‘Sno Angel Like You. As reported elsewhere on Time to Play B-Sides, Howe Gelb is the frontman for a number of projects and bands and is related to the exciting music scene coming out of Tucson. Gelb records under the monikers of Arizona Amp and Alternator, Giant Sand, and as himself for Thrill Jockey. Technically, the project name of this record is ‘Sno Angel, and the name of the record is Like You. Although, it is being referred to by the project and album name together.
The story is that Howe met up with the Canadian gospel choir while playing a blues festival in Ottawa. He caught a show with the choir and and was moved enough to engage the director to see if they would be interested in recording a “non-religious” album. The rules were to keep it positive. The album material would consist of seven new songs, plus three songs from the Giant Sand catalog that he always felt “begged” for a choir, plus three songs from the late Rainer Ptacek that seemed to fit the established direction of the album. The record was started by Howe Gelb and drummer Jeremy Gara who would become the drummer for Arcade Fire who he met at the studio. The Voices of Praise came in after the spare guitar and drum tracks were laid.
The results are stunning. A very intimate record sounding like it was recorded in a small room. A nice use of distortion keeps the records edge in place. If I hadn’t read that the choir was recorded separately, I would have believed that this was all done in one session! In fact, my handwritten notes made while listening say, “Live to tape?.” The album is fairly short, with songs clocking in around 2 minutes typically. But, it is this deliberate economy that keeps the album moving right along. I’ve listened to this album around ten times already, and I always find myself surprised when it’s over! No meandering jam record this one.
Gelb’s singing is similar to the limited styles of Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, or Victoria Williams. In fact, I think it at times is closer to Victoria Williams with the slight bending of a note to the next. But, it is the choir that really propels and lifts this record. I’ve not really been a fan of gospel-style music– although I always liked the scene from Rattle and Hum where U2 works with the Harlem choir New Voices of Freedom on “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
The songs picked for this record are all consistent in the “positive” theme that Gelb was trying to achieve. The lyrics seem to work at many levels. Even though he was evidently not trying to record a religious record, it is transcendent as it is a gospel for the day to day– an album with a message. It’s a record that leaves me in genuine good spirits after listening to it. I can’t think of many records that touch like this. Gelb is a master of the turn or phrase. I haven’t read the lyrics but he likes the occasional pun. The song “Hey man” certainly sounds like “Amen” when delivered by the choir.
I think that this album is a good primer for Howe Gelb. The clean, singular approach to this material really shows the artist that Howe is. I don’t know what direction Howe will take next– he’s like Neil Young in that he could change 180 degrees for the next project. He is going to do a limited tour with the Voices of Praise– I would recommend catching these shows if you can– I’m sure they will be amazing. I’m hoping the tapers will be out in force for them.
Even though this wasn’t supposed to be a religious album, I think this record demonstrates that when you work with an honest-to-goodness gospel choir you end up delivering the good news.
Listen to “But I Did Not”