I would not argue that this is the best album of 2006 so far, but it is definitely the one that so far has given me the most joy. I wasn't, in fact, certain I wanted to get it. I have been a big fan of Giant Sand for some time, but I have not been as moved by Howe Gelb's solo work as I have been by his work fronting Giant Sand. It turns out, however, that I like this more than any Giant Sand album, and that is saying quite a bit.
This is a deeply spiritual album despite not being at all religious. Spiritual and moral themes riddle the songs and it seems entirely appropriate that his minimal rock band is backed throughout by a gospel choir, the Voices of Praise. The resulting sound isn't at all what one might expect. In this instance when an alternative rock musician meets a gospel choir, the choir conforms to the needs of his sound more than he does to the limitations of a choir. As a result, this album doesn't really sound like anything else I've ever heard. It is more that the choir helps bring out the latent spiritual themes of Gelb's music than anything else, with a new musical hybrid ensuing. Gospel punk? Take "Worried Spirit" from near the end of the disc. The individual elements might sound incongruous--heavily distorted guitar, a strong beat provided by drums with heavy use of tom toms, some use of piano, Gelb's Lou Reed-like voice, gospel choir cutting in to sing: "Oh my worried spirits/Oh my troubled mind." But every element fits perfectly with all the others.
The old Mississippi Delta blues singers were very conscious of performing devil's music. There was no hope, no salvation, only damnation and despair. In this way, at least, 'SNO ANGEL LIKE YOU is a gospel album, since it is full of hope and affirmation of life. There is concern about having made the right moral choices, but no guilt over having failed. No song illustrates this better than "But I Did Not," where Gelb sings in each line about what he might have done and the others answer back "But I did not" while the choir sings gently in the background:
Would I be awakened where the wrong side renders? (But I did not.)
Would I be dangling towards demise? (But I did not.)
Forgetting about the innocent splendors? (But I did not.)
And rage blinding my eyes? (But I did not.)
But Gelb's attitude isn't moral exulting, but more the sense that he barely escaped. When he sings "Felt like burning down the home" and "Felt like me a gun" there is a sense not of moral superiority but of relief, as if he had barely dodged the bullet. This is all made clear in the final verse where he turns everything around:
People just smiling at the sun shining (But I did not.)
Seeing the dark clouds, silver lining (But I did not.)
He finally sings "Sacrifice sometimes is just timing," and ends with the realization that he just got lucky, apparently meeting someone (a woman?) who helped make a difference. It is a glorious song and one of the highpoints of the disc.
I can't recommend this disc highly enough and my fear is that this is one of those special little masterpieces that will get ignored by fans and under promoted by the record company. I've rarely seen such an unexpectedly marvelous collaboration as that between Gelb, his fellow musicians (including Arcade Fire drummer Jeremy Gara), and Voices of Praise. I hope this doesn't end up being the most underrated disc of the year.