Howe Gelb, both as a solo artist and as leader of the enigmatic desert outfit Giant Sand, occupies such a distinct corner of Americana that his records tend to be instantly recognizable and relatively interchangeable at the same time. Still, Giant Sand's most recent album, Chore Of Enchantment, could be the group's best work, with Gelb in fine oddball form as singer and songwriter. In fact, those sessions were apparently so fruitful that plenty of material was left over, which brings us to Confluence, Gelb's third solo album and a digression from the heady, moody world of Chore. The disc features regular Gelb collaborators such as John Parish, Kevin Salem, and, of course, Joey Burns and John Convertino, otherwise known as Calexico. But Gelb also brings in guest ringer Grandaddy to back him on a hissy, home-recorded cover of "Can't Help Falling In Love." That song is no anomaly: A few of Confluence's tracks actually find the perpetually glum Gelb perking up slightly. "Pontiac Slipstream" could pass for upbeat, while "Blue Marble Girl" is a relatively optimistic ballad akin to the finer works of Lou Reed. And, of course, the album is filled with the great off-the-cuff cowpoke-from-space material that's long been Gelb's specialty. "Available Space," "3 Sisters," and the Neil Young-like "Hard On Things" would fit well on previous Giant Sand albums, but "Cold," "2 Rivers," and "Pedal Steel And She'll" sound more playful and melodic than usual. Confluence doesn't come any closer to unraveling the Gelb mystery, but that's part of its appeal: Some time in the distant future, someone will dredge up a truckload of unreleased material and finally, authoritatively, anoint him a genius. Until then, the prolific and consistent Gelb is his own best booster.