To some extent, we know what we’re going to get out of the Gourds: a rootsy sound that blends multiple influences from rock to county to R&B, often coupled with a wry wink and lyrics that veer into Beckian stream-of-consciousness. It’s fun, and their shows are a party, even if it can make their studio albums a bit of a mixed bag.
Overall, it just works, and it seems to work better with each release. With about a dozen records under their belts, the Gourds have only gotten better over time, and it wouldn’t be hard at all to make a strong mix CD of their best songs. Old Mad Joy continues that tradition by offering up a number of guaranteed crowd-pleasers, along with subtle ballads, woozy lyrics and a couple of choruses that will drive you up the wall. It feels more focused than many Gourds releases, however, perhaps due to the fact that the band holed up in the Barn, Levon Helm’s recording studio, while recording it. At the very least, that location obviously encouraged the Gourds to try their hand at some songs with a definite Band feel (the lovely “Two Sparrows” or the plaintive “Ink and Grief”).
Elsewhere, “Drop What I’m Doing”, right down to its grainy Keith Richards-sounding vocals, would pass for the Stones in a blind listening test. That, along with stylistic touches like the doo-wop flavors of barstool lament “Marginalized” and the South of the Border flourishes of “Haunted” (flavorful enough to make warrant their own song), helps make Old Mad Joy a consistently interesting listen.
The album’s only downside rests in a few songs that, to these ears, are just annoying. “Drop the Charges” and “You Must Not Know” have patience-testing choruses, while the wobbly ‘60s vibe of “Melchert” might require a few drinks before it sounds like it’s found any balance. The same adventurous spirit that results in those moments, though, also results in a strong track like “Peppermint City”. Featuring a nice bottom-end riff and plenty of swagger, the song ends with fantastic layering of the band singing the word “peppermint” until the word itself becomes something of a riff of its own.
Pretty much par for the course with the Gourds, though. This is, after all, a band that first grabbed the spotlight with covers of not only David Bowie, but also of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice”. It’s probably fair to say that the double-edged success of “Gin and Juice” is probably something they won’t try to repeat, but Old Mad Joy sounds like the Gourds are still having fun.