If I was to list my five favorite cover songs of all time, The Gourds’ country hoe-down version of Snoop Dogg’s signature song “Gin and Juice” would likely be at the top of the heap. This astonishing conversion of a gangsta rap song into a barn dance rave-up is nothing short of genius, and when Napster reared its precocious head a couple years ago, word spread quickly about the song, and it soon became somewhat of a cult classic. There’s something about hearing a bunch of rednecks sing a line like, “Dr. Dre got some bitches from the city of Compton” that makes you bust your gut laughing. That’s what The Gourds are all about: having some serious, serious fun. The Austin, Texas collective specializes in making folks feel good, and it’s obvious they also get a massive kick out of it.
The Gourds are hardly a novelty act who only put out witty covers. In fact, they’ve put out six full-length albums, and their sixth CD, Cow Fish Fowl or Pig (what a title!) showcase the band in peak form. How can I describe their music? Well, it’s a bit of a combination of Hank Williams, Captain Beefheart, the Rolling Stones, Ween, The Fugs, and the Carter Family, with a little bit of French Dadaist influence for good measure. With an absolutely absurd album cover that includes a drawing of a pig with a cigarette (mocking Van Halen’s 1984 album cover, perhaps?), the dividing of the album into two parts, as if it was an ambitious, high-brow concept album, and a street recording of a mysterious street guy rapping about God that serves as an “intermission”, it’s not too hard to see that The Gourds are trying to pull one over on us. After all, when you title the first half of your album “the cow brings home the fish” and the latter “the fowl tells the pig of each transgression”, you’d better not be serious.
Led by three principal singer/songwriters, The Gourds are never short of quality material. Bassist/singer Jimmy Smith contributes six songs, and his songs possess some great wit. The irresistible “My Name Is Jorge” depicts a guy who sells fruit to notable 20th century figures, including an apple to William S. Burroughs (“He shot up his dope, his wine sap, his girl” . . . ouch), a lemon to Henry Ford (“But he brought it back, I said, all sales are final”), and Muhammad Ali (“But I called him Clay so he punched me out”). The Stones-like blend of country and blues in “The Bridge” has Smith describing a surreal scenario that places James Brown into the story of the Three Billygoats Gruff: “If the billygoat was Bootsy / And the troll was Maceo / Only the godfather of soul / Can really take you to the bridge.” “Hell Hounds” tells the tale of a bizarre tryst at the State Fair with a bearded lady in an Airstream trailer, while “Right in the Head” is a straightforward ballad with some great lines (“The brewer’s yeast ferments and forgives all that you did”). The Latin-tinged “The Prayer That Fell Upon the Mirror” out-Weens Ween (“chocolate covered wingspans”?), and the terrific “Ceilin’s Leakin’” is an all-out Rolling Stones tribute.
Multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston brings three good songs to the festivities. He sounds like the band member who’s the most sober; his songs are more simple, traditional, and straightforward, and give the listener a breather after all the insane hillbilly histrionics. “First in Line” sounds like an old Appalachian folk song from the 1930s, while the very pretty “Blankets” sounds a whole heckuvalot like the countrified version of the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil” that Bob Dylan is currently performing. The breezy “Best of Me” sounds like Wilco’s early work, and has some great little George Harrison-like guitar licks.
It’s the inimitable Kev Russell, though, who steals the show. The band’s Twisted Madman in Residence, Russell’s songwriting is a notch higher than his bandmates’ efforts, and his six songs on the album drive the point home. “Roll & Tumble” has Russell going on like a backwoods poet, singing, “Salt in the sorrow and the sugar blooms / Consign yer bags to the hand of doom.” Russell sounds like a cross between Cletus T. Judd and Leon Redbone on the wonderfully weird “Foggy Blossoms (Mechanical Bride)”, a song with such fun wordplay that you don’t care if it doesn’t mean anything (“Yella bikes high tail it on home / Shoelaces for the superdome”). “Ants on the Melon” is a brilliant, saucy tune, glorifying fried chicken and the company of women at the same time (“Mash taters and butter and all the other / We gonna do it up right”), while “Bottle & a Dime” is a loose blend of Cajun and ZZ-Top (I’m not kidding). “Ham-Fisted Box of Gloves” is Russell’s most serious sounding song, and “Sweet Nutty” is, well, his sweetest, featuring a fun, sing-along chorus that unabashedly smacks of Three Dog Night.
Capping off the festivities is the elegiac “Smoke Bend”, sung by Max Johnston’s father, Dollar Bill Johnston, and a bizarre hidden track that sounds like a stream-of-consciousness a cappella song featuring different lines spliced together, much like Captain Beefheart’s “The Dust Flows Forward ‘N’ the Dust Blows Back”. It’s a bit lengthy for an album like this, but all the songs work. The bottom line: a great time is guaranteed when you give this CD a listen. The Gourds know how to make energetic, warmhearted, loosey-goosey country music, and Cow Fish Fowl or Pig is an hour-long blast that manages to sound fresh for its entirety (for even more fun, I highly recommend Kev Russell’s solo debut, Buttermilk & Rifles). This album will put a smile on your face like no other album you’ll hear all year.
// Notes from the Road
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