In serious contention for the honor of "hardest-working musician in the Old Pueblo," Gabriel Sullivan has given the world lots of excellent music in years past, including his work with American Black Lung, Fell City Shouts and Bajo Turbato, all while sitting in with acts as diverse as Marianne Dissard, Brian Lopez and Giant Sand.
Now, Sullivan is releasing two new albums at the same time: one with his roaring big band Taraf de Tucson, and the other a mostly quiet solo project.
None of This Is Mine is a big, bold production featuring Sullivan's nine-piece band (which has been known occasionally to grow larger), and a showcase for the group's unique signature sound—a boisterous combination of ramshackle gypsy rock, cumbia and borderlands blues.
The best songs on the Taraf de Tucson record are those that show off the band's fiery, rambunctious nature, such as almost-nightmarish "Cumbia del Torero," which bounces on the Latin-Caribbean beat with blaring horns that split the difference between Balkan and mariachi influences. As on most of this material, Chris Black's violin cuts through the rowdy atmosphere.
The title track is a full-blown spaghetti-Western charmer, with what sounds like a full string section framing the arrangement. "The Rust, the Knife," a meditation on frontier violence, borrows a bit from Ennio Morricone, too, especially the baritone guitar, horns and chanted background vocals. It also includes some spooky spoken word by local legend Billy Sedlmayr; the whole thing is utterly addictive.
Co-written by vocalist-trumpeter Jon Villa (The Jons), "Viviendo a la Noche" is one of the best cuts, a slinky dance number that alternately steps nimbly and then lurches. Snags and snippets of noise and idiosyncratic melody that drift in and out of some of the album's tracks, such as "La Danza de los Mijitos," bring to mind the offbeat and quirky sound of the Latin Playboys.
In contrast, Where the Bad Ones Go was recorded in two days, with Sullivan writing the material and playing most of the instruments. The only other musicians on the recording are Villa, who sings, and Dante Rosano, who contributes piano on the title track.
A follow-up to 2009's By the Dirt, Sullivan's second solo album is an introspective collection of eight tunes that use bluesy country as a jumping-off point, venturing into the realm of norteño balladry and sideshow barking. The material often treads a fine line between gruff ("The Sun Belongs to You," "What the Desert Brings") and delicate ("Sewer Rats," "Fall Apart").
Sullivan's compositions are romantic/tragic portraits of worry-worn characters facing the dramatic challenges of everyday life—love and loss, and the harshness of the desert. Although his songs are tender and raw, he also indulges his instrumental side with a gorgeous piece for solo guitar, "Dawn," and the stately piano mediation "There Were 6 Storms."