[17 December 2004]
While I don’t advocate choosing elected officials on the basis of which candidate would be more fun to share a beer with, it’s not a horrible determinant in selecting a band to listen to. It just so happens that one of those bands, in my book at least, is Austin, TX’s the Gourds, whose newest album, Blood of the Ram, is the subject of this review. Funny how that works sometimes… Now when I talk about hypothetically drinking with a band, I’m not talking about re-enacting shitfaced escapades from Motley Crue’s The Dirt; rather, I’m talking about buying a sweaty 30-rack of Pabst Blue Ribbon and shooting the shit on a porch, putting off more important work.
If the songs on Blood of the Ram are any indication, the Gourds—singer/guitarist Kevin Russell, singer/bassist Jimmy Smith, accordionist/keyboardist Claude Bernard, drummer Keith Langford, and multi-stringed-instrumentalist Max Johnstone—would have some great funny stories to tell. And lots of different ways to tell them: they run the sonic gamut from folk to zydeco to blues to country and soul, the resultant mash-up falling somewhere under the Americana umbrella. ‘Tis good stuff, indeed.
It’s fitting then that this Americana band opens their eighth album with Russell’s “The Lower 48”, which gives a shout-out to every state but Alaska and Hawaii. Steeped in fiddle and accordion, the zydeco-influenced song plays like a demented geography lesson cross-pollinated with the Nails’ “88 Lines About 44 Women” (“California likes to kill it gov’ners / In a pool of blood on a superhighway” and “Married my cousin when I got to Arkansas / Married two more when I got to Utah” are my fave couplets). Russell gets through 14 states before he cuts bait and just rattles off the remaining 34 - a lazy, funny move that sums up the Gourds’ modus operandi.
More good stuff: Russell dusts off his best falsetto for the faux-soul, anti-SUV diatribe, “Escalade”. These goofballs imbue the song with genuine soul, while Russell proudly states his eco-friendly contribution: “Meanwhile, I ride on an ass”. “Do 4 U” may mimic hip-hop spelling, but it’s a decided barnburner, with Johnston (ex-Uncle Tupelo and Wilco) nearly setting his fiddle on fire. The tune also boasts blues underpinnings, specifically referencing Howlin’ Wolf’s “Asked for Water” with the line “I ask for a glass of your kindly wine / You bring me a carafe of that old turpentine”. Basically, any genre that can’t outrun the Gourds gets devoured by the band and assimilated into their sound. (Hell, even rap isn’t safe. They’re best known, if at all, for their “hick-hop” cover of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice”.)
Did I mention that the Gourds are great storytellers, too? I believe I did, but it bears repeating. Russell claims the police troubles recounted in the spry banjo exercise “Cracklins” were related to him by his great grandfather. Apparently the man was hassled by the cops for vagrancy and shooting squirrels, then forced to fake his own death after he “robbed a bank with a rack of ribs”. The truth? Southern-fried Magic Realism? Utter bullshit? Who cares—it’s a great story. Ditto for the title track, which tells the story of Waylon, an enormous, well-hung (this detail is specifically mentioned in the tune) ram that is slaughtered and its blood washes the town it lived in out to sea. Bizarro circumstances aside, it’s a cautionary tale—don’t take blessings of bounty for granted—with Russell’s deep voice and Smith’s boom-chicka bassline both portending doom.
The Gourds have been practicing their unique brand of off-kilter Americana for nearly a decade, and Blood of the Ram finds them in peak form. They’re welcome to drink with me on my porch any day. I’ll even bring the PBR.