If you should happen to find yourself in the sudden possession of Giant Sand
's Chore of Enchantment
without having actually heard the record, you're in a rare position to elicit from it the music fan's equivalent of pure chewing satisfaction
. Without hyping it up too much, this is the record I always turn to when I don't know what to listen to. While it isn't my favorite, it is truly a contender.
I don't want to mislead you, though. Ownership of Chore of Enchantment will probably not get you laid, help you find inner peace, or cure your drinking problem. Regardless, the next time you find yourself in a record store, preferably a crowded little shop with hardwood floors and heavy racks of dusty vinyl, steer yourself toward the pop / rock section and find today's sponsor: the letter G. Leaf through the records (or compact discs, whatever flips your lid) slowly, idly. Remember, you're not actually buying any records yet: you are playing the role of the informed consumer. You are taking care of business. You are killing time until lunch or whatever when, ooh! what is this? Probably the only Giant Sand record in the whole store (even though they have many others), and, yes, it happens to be Chore of Enchantment. Well, don't be shy, this is, after all, what you are (only passingly, of course) interested in. Pull it out. Compact disc buyers have the advantage of being able to hide it, thereby demonstrating their complete ambivalence toward anything resembling a thought of commitment to buying this record. Now, take a look at the front cover. Pretty simple, right? Pleasing to the eye, two photographs arranged together to show a high-ceilinged room. Note the christmas lights in the top photograph, the dusty hardwood floor (much like the floor upon which you are standing, yes?), the walls painted as a blue sky with just the slightest wisp of a cloud, the folding chair near the door. Ah, yes. The door seems to be the main feature here, opening into a room where a drum set is waiting. Sort of just pulls you right in, doesn't it? I don't want to say 'enchanting,' because that seems redundant, but I think 'inviting' is the word we're looking for here.
Now flip it over. Slowly, now. Careful. This is the clincher right here. Another photograph, with a superimposed track list. This is the deciding factor right here: are you really the type of person who would buy a record with a picture of a drunk woman holding a half-empty plastic cup of pilsner in her hand? If you are, then kudos: calmly put the record under your arm and walk around the store for a while, browsing, perusing. This is not the record you came here for, you just find the album art intriguing. Take your time in purchasing this record: the music will wait for you. This is music that wants to be experienced, but is as patient as you will allow it.
Actually, that's another point. As much as I like to think of this album having the dustiest sound possible, dusty like the floor on the front, dusty like the Arizona desert behind the woman on the back, this is something you need to listen to without interruption. Vinyl has its merits, sure, but a nice compact disc is probably best for this.
Now, those of you with CD players in your cars will be tempted to listen to this while in motion. When you are used to the record this is a great idea, but please please please, for the love of Hank Williams, Sr., do not let your first listen of this record be in an automobile. Chore of Enchantment requires an armchair, headphones, a comfortable and non-mobile listening environment. Exceptions will be made for anybody who calls a double-wide "home," but they have enough strikes against them to begin with.
When you're finally at home and settled down, remove the cellophane wrapping and take a moment to look through the liner notes. The back of the booklet is a photograph of a couple proudly displaying their marriage license from Pima County, Arizona. We can't see their faces: only their torsoes, their hands, and the marriage license. We see his bolo tie. We see her brown, silken wedding dress. Are they in love? What kind of people are they? His hands are leathery, hers are well tanned. Are they listening to the record with us? Is this album their story?
I sense your impatience. You know how to look at photographs. You can find details. You're a member of today's record listening public. You crave aural stimulation, and you didn't burn away fourteen bucks to look at someone's wedding photos. What do you care that Chore of Enchantment is "Dedicated with Great Love to Thee Grand Slider and Masterful Human Being: Rainer Jaromir Ptacek, 1951-1997"? All right, okay. Let's slip it in and let it spin, but, before you do, pour yourself a drink. Anything, really. Bourbon, beer, tap water with yellow food coloring. As long as it's in a glass and feels good in your hand. Now we can begin.
Oh, dear fucking GOD! What are you listening to? Opera? Mellotron? Some god awful tape loops? How long does this go ON? No, wait. Okay, you're through with the Overture, possibly the longest forty-eight seconds of your ears' life. Now you've got a nice solid upright bass groove, courtesy of Joe Burns. Fans of Calexico will no doubt feel at home here, but fans of Calexico probably already knew that Giant Sand is John and Joe with their old pal Howe Gelb patching everything together with his weather-worn voice. Once you're well into the second track, dealing with the second coming, close your eyes. Where are you? Are you still at home? Or are you suddenly in the middle of the Painted Desert? Open your eyes, take a look around. Nope, still at home. But wasn't the desert nicer? Let's go back there for a while.
I don't want to tell you about the road you're travelling on. This is a new experience, a dirty little mystery. Settle into the record, let the music play around with you a little. Opening track notwithstanding, it flows pretty nicely, doesn't? A couple of jars here and there, but that's good. Remember why you invited Gelb and company into your hi-fi in the first place: you wanted to be surprised, and surprise you they will. Smooth, luxurious guitar based country music lilts above a bossa nova beat in X-tra Wide. A decent rock jive in 1972 turns out to be somewhat akin to your average punk tune: just long enough to break something. Temptation of Egg seduces you and then betrays you again and again. It goes on like this, twists and treasures in every track.
Now that the record is actually playing, though, go back and look at the sleeve. That woman on the back, she seems happy enough. What is she raising her glass to? The end of the day? You, for buying her friends' record? Or is that even a smile? It looks like she's hiding something in those dark eyes of hers. Peruse the liner notes again, and ask yourself as many questions as you can bear. Figure out for yourself if this is a record detailing triumph or dispair. I can tell you right now that your notion will change almost every time you listen.
This could've easily been one of the many records that just sort of sits in my collection and experiences an enormous amount of self-pity because I just wasn't interested enough to give it a couple more listens, but I was lucky enough to be stuck away from home with a very limited listening selection, and this record just happened to match whatever mood I was experiencing. Heartbroken? Feast your ears on Shiver. Despondent? Way to End the Day and No Reply are your best goddamn friends in the world. Elated? Temptation of Egg is where it's at. Lovestruck? Melancholy, yet optimistic? Wistful? Astonished (in Memphis), Dirty From The Rain, Shrine. And, man oh man, when you hear the album's climax, Satellite, you'll wonder where it's been all your life.
Overall, this is just such a solid, well paced, and well produced album. Gelb has such a good handle on what he wants you to hear in his songs that you will consider a drive to Arizona just to shake his hand and buy him a beer. The credits are fun to read ("Gelb sung some hum, Convertino drums some drum, Burns strum bass strum"), the lyrics hit the mark every time, and have I mentioned how tight the instrumentation is? With time, even that discordant opening track is something to look forward to. There's even going to be a moment when one of your friends, perhaps another curious fellow such as yourself, will be over at your pad and spy the case to this album and go, "Man, what is up with this chick on the back?" and you can just smile to yourself. She's an old friend. An old, reliable friend.
- (well) Dusted (for the millennium)
- Punishing Sun
- X-tra Wide
- Temptation of Egg
- Dirty From The Rain
- Astonished (in Memphis)
- No Reply
- Bottom Line Man
- Way to End the Day
Released in late 2000 on the Thrill Jockey label. Produced by John Parish in Tucson, Jim Dickinson in Memphis, and Kevin Salem in New York City. Co-produced by Howe Gelb. All songs written by Howe Gelb, © 2000 Amazing Black Sand (BMI), except Shrine, written by Rainer Ptacek, © 1997 Mushed Music (BMI).