Any record subtitled a 'country rock opera' is doubtless going to achieve two things; firstly, it's a statement with intentions of grandeur while secondly, many listeners will also question what they're going to get. At 19 tracks, Tucson (which is also album number 26 for the band) is ambitious and may give the impression that it is self-indulgent. It is, after all, named after Howe Gelb's hometown and sees a name change for the band to Giant Giant Sand. While that may be the opinion of some of Gelb's intended audience, there are a number of redeeming features to the album.
The amped up name for an established act seems an odd choice at first, but within the context of what Tucson is trying to achieve, it makes perfect sense. Here, a string section, pedal steel and South American musicians join the core quartet of Giant Giant Sand. Although, at its heart, there's a streak of traditional country composition to the record, there's also room for a waltz, mariachi horns and guitars and lounge crooning. There's a laid back feel to the playing that means that although the shifts in style are very apparent, they're not jarring. Nor do the additional musicians dominate proceedings; the horns sound decidedly downbeat at times ('Forever And A Day') rather than triumphant. That's certainly one of the successes of Tucson and its widescreen musical landscapes that provide the backdrop for Gelb's slightly odd tale of a road trip across the border.
It's that narrative that not only places Gelb front and centre to the proceedings, but also bogs the record down during its 70-minute runtime. It's meandering ('Plane Of Existence') and, at times, you struggle to quite follow what's happening and how the songs are interconnected. On their own the tracks work fine, but, stitched together as part of Gelb's ambitious 'opera' idea, the protagonist becomes rather elusive as he moves from place to place. There are certainly themes of departure, love and dreams that are lyrically infused throughout but, like a dream, the lyrics start to become hazy and more obtuse the further into the record you delve.
That's not to say that Gelb's vocal performance detracts from the overall experience. His grave drawl oozes regret and a weary hope, which at times verges on Leonard Cohen territory ('Hard Morning In A Soft Blur'). Throughout, guest vocalists either duet or take the reins themselves. These range from the good (Lonna Kelley backed by a jazz influenced piano on 'Ready Or Not') to the slightly surreal (the chorus of children that chirp in during the outer space influenced 'Recovery Mission').
As a concept album Tucson is certainly ambitious and seemingly is somewhat of a long time pet project for Gelb. However, it's also flawed with a disjointed narrative that tries to deal with existential issues. What starts as a simple road trip to Mexico, descends into a cauldron of ideas about the end of the world (no, really). It's also a little over-long which means the whiff of self-indulgence grows stronger as the record draws to its eventual conclusion. Musically, it succeeds in re-imagining the scope of what can be achieved by a country rock record, but your attention is invariably drawn to Gelb's attempts to create his quirky magnum opus which doesn't ever reach the great heights he was hoping for.
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