How does he do it? Not content with releasing the acclaim-garnering Chore of Enchantment last year, Giant Sand head honcho Howe Gelb followed it up with a CD of outtakes that was possibly better than the album itself and now, five months on, comes Down Home 2000 as a taster for his forthcoming solo album out in March. Whew! Going completely solo for the first time in his career, Gelb has produced one of his most essential albums to date, a darker, more meditative work that betrays its charms slowly but surely. Using mainly acoustic guitars, minimal percussion and shots of piano and organ, Gelb constructs a seductive late-night mood that befits his lazy, lingering voice with its sleepy charm and echoes of Dylan and Waits. From the hushed delicacy of The Bargain to the propulsive roll of Horses Still Coming there is a wonderful feeling that all this just came out off the cuff. For the most part Gelb plays it straight, as in the aching ballad Actual Desert, Rose or the folky, self-deprecating Dear Diary. His lyrics are clever, insightful and funny as always, (“And he never got her name / She would never toss it twice / They clung to what mattered / They were drunken with each other’s entice”) while with The Meantime and Tender Trap, he’s produced two of his darkest and most affecting songs yet. This being a Howe Gelb album there is, of course, also a jazzy piano instrumental, snatches of his kid singing, and various other slabs of musique concrete, the most fascinating of which, It’s Yer Ropes, Cisco, consists of an old Giant Sand number played against an ancient blues recording. The juxtaposition of eras and voices is spooky and when Howe intones “They say this place is haunted / But only by a ghost” you know just what he means. Better than Chore, available only through the net, you’d be a fool to miss out on this gorgeous, warm and consistently challenging album.