If you’ve been wowed by Phish’s version of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice”, then you’ll be interested to discover that it’s not Phish at all, but The Gourds. Briefly available on the group’s out-of-print Gogitchyershinebox EP, the song spread like wildfire via Napster and tape traders, somehow never getting attributed to the right band. The release of Shinebox should change that, as well as cast light on this unassuming Texas band.
Stemming from Austin’s formative alt-country years when bands like the Bad Livers made their mark, The Gourds are known as a thinkin’ man’s band, but their blend of all things rootsy circumvents any academic dryness the band might have hiding under the hood (no one will ever be able to accuse a song like “I Ate the Haggis” of being eggheaded). Shinebox reissues the original Gogitchyershinebox (minus the electric version of “Magnolia”) with bonus tracks. Equal parts cover versions and original material both live and from the studio, the album shows where the band come from and the progress they’ve made over the years. If nothing else, it successfully portrays The Gourds as more than a novelty-laced cover band.
Of the covers, “Gin and Juice” is obviously the most striking. Mandolin-driven and played with a straight country twang, the song raises a smile for its word-for-word celebration of “bubonic chronic” and other trappings of the gangsta lifestyle, but its energy gives it a life beyond parody. The song actually translates fairly well into a hillbilly anthem. For more traditional choices, the band takes on “Dooley” (you might remember it being sung by The Darlings on The Andy Griffith Show) and one of Townes Van Zandt’s more mysterious recordings, “Two Girls”. They also do a nice job on Nils Lofgren’s “Everybody’s Missing the Sun” and B.J. Shaver’s “Omaha”. The only remake that doesn’t work is their version of David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust”, due to the parodic, ultra-twangy take on Bowie’s vocal style.
The original songs show the band fleshing out their roots-rock/bluegrass vibe. They don’t come across as virtuosos, but the band’s undeniable chemistry counts for more. They have definitely benefited, though, from the addition of Max Johnston. The former Uncle Tupelo/Wilco member’s skills at mandolin, banjo, fiddle, and slide guitar patch up some of the band’s noticeable early gaps. His songwriting has also produced one of the band’s most evocative songs to date, the gospel-tinged “Jesus Christ (With Signs Following)” (from 2000’s Bolsa de Agua). Gogitchyershinebox offers only four Gourds-penned songs, but they ably represent a band with plenty of poetry and irony in its toolbox. For example, the aggressive “Lament”, about a preacher’s visits to a sinner’s home, juggles the short-term benefits of claiming religious virtue with the simplicity of avoiding the facade altogether.
Gogitchyershinebox comes out in time to capitalize on some of the excitement generated by “Gin and Juice”, but its inclusion of several more covers allows the band to make a definitive statement about the sources and influences they’re trying to bring together. A touch of Texas border poetry, a dash of Appalachian balladry, and yes, even a wee bit of West Coast G-funk: those and more are all worthwhile ingredients in The Gourds’ melting pot of American sounds.