On his latest album of avant-twang and alternative folk-rock, the Giant Sand leader and Tucson music-scene godfather sings in an almost spoken drawl, by turns gruff and sweet, that may be familiar to longtime fans. But here it's mixed up close, like an intimate, whispered confidence, as if Gelb were spinning old stories in the privacy of your living room. Or in your brain, if you're using headphones.
The core band on The Coincidentalist features M. Ward on guitar, Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley on drums and Giant Sand bassist Thøger Lund. Guest singers include Will Oldham on the opening tune, "Vortexas," a near-iconographic tribute to Tucson; and KT Tunstall on "The 3 Deaths of Lucky," which moves from elegant to jaunty. Both are gorgeous songs, ranking among Gelb's best.
Despite its subdued tone and placement late in the album's second half, "Picacho Peak" feels like an emotional centerpiece. Built primarily around Gelb's piano and a gospel-style female chorus, it's a melancholic rumination on flying, sleeping, driving, happenstance and mortality, all unfolding "in the shadow of an old dead volcano." Most affecting is Gelb's repeated line, "all the endless hours appear so finite," somberly intoned in light of the passing of his father.
The album concludes with two tracks that initially might seem like throwaways but aren't. The two-minute shuffle of "Looking That Way" evolves into the starkly beautiful, jazz piano-led instrumental "Instigated Chimes," a la one of Gelb's heroes, Thelonious Monk.