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CD Review: Giant Giant Sand's Tucson: A Country Rock Opera 

Fire; Release date: June 12, 2012

Howe Gelb's 32-year-wide catalog stretches on like the Sonora desert that surrounds the protagonist of this LP, his adopted hometown Tucson. The city's border-hopping adobe aesthetic has flavored Gelb's music ever since he moved there from Pennsylvania in the '70s and began morphing into the Thelonious Monk of country rock. Like the jazz eccentric he admires, Gelb's twang is uniquely his own, spontaneous and free-flowing enough to embrace whatever its owner's fecund imagination encounters, just as it does over these 19 country-based songs: Corridos (tear-jerker opener "Wind Blown Waltz") and cumbias ("Carinita"), spaghetti mariachi ("Forever and a Day") and Man-in-Black train shuffles ("Lost Love"), snake-bit country blues ("Mostly Wrong") and Hazelwood/Sinatra duets ("We Don't Play Tonight"), flamenco ("Undiscovered Country") and late-night lounge ("Love Comes Over You").

Thankfully, the music holds our attention much better than the half-baked opera conceit sketched out in the liner notes, which mirrors its author's journey to, and love affair with, Tucson. Gelb interacts here with a cast of dozens (hence the extra "Giant"), which brings judicious variety to the proceedings. There's his core quartet of Danish rockers, cross-generational collaborations with longtime peers like Calexico's John Convertino and Grandaddy's Jason Lytle, and young bucks like Tucson's velvet-voiced Brian Lopez and pedal steel wundermädchen Maggie Björklund. The record sags two-thirds of the way through, but only briefly, as Gelb wisely lets others have their turn at the mic, and kicks up the tempo to finish strong in an LP that easily rivals his career-best, 2000's Chore of Enchantment.

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