Outside of Texas and beyond country music fandom, The Gourds are sometimes better known as Phish. They have no relation to the epochal Vermont jam band—never played with them, never covered them, never got into a tabloid-friendly bar fight with them. But in 1998, The Gourds recorded Snoop Dogg’s hit “Gin and Juice” in their unapologetic country/rock/bluegrass style. File-trading made the cover an instant smash, speeding from college student to college student to bachelor party planner across the country. But somewhere along the way, a few traders got the song without a filename and labeled it after the band they thought it sounded like—Phish. And occasionally Dave Matthews.
All of this puts the Gourds in an odd place—a band that millions of people have heard, but maybe a few hundred thousand know. But anyone who got a laugh out of “Gin and Juice” should take another look at this band, and a listen to Heavy Ornamentals. The mid-album track “New Roommate” starts off sounding like a solid, doctrinaire country song, with a shuffling beat, two noodling guitars, and raw-throated vocals by Jimmy Smith, who sounds like Dr. John if he was 30 years younger and ran triathlons. And then the lyrics kick in. “This ain’t no B&B, all the food you ate/ If you wanna get it shipped, man, you know you gotta pay the freight.”
That should clear things up considerably. The Gourds are a fun, “try this out” kind of band, and closer to actual country music than alt-country. They sound like Uncle Tupelo from time to time, but it’s impossible to imagine one of these guys breaking off and getting on the cover of Spin. (Although Gourd Max Johnson did play on Wilco’s first album A.M.)Opening track “Declineometer” is as raucous as an early Dwight Yoakam single, the band shouting “Hey, hey!” throughout the verses until Russell spits out the chorus: “De-clino-meet-UH! De-clino-meet-UH!” The next song, “Burn the Honeysuckle”, is a little slower, but it’s a kick to listen to. It’s based on, of all things, an ascending swing bass line and drum roll. The line from “Pennsylvania 6-5000” to roots music is straighter than any of us thought.
The record is light on ballads, which plays to The Gourds’ strengths. But one ballad, the funeral-tempo “Our Patriarch,” is as good a song this genre has produced in years—up there with the Loretta Lynn comeback, up there with the new Rosanne Cash record. The melody is beautiful, but the lyrics are even more striking. They start with a picture of a dusty “border town” coming together for a funeral—we know where this is going. But we learn the town patriarch has “greasy hands” and “held the golden cage’s key” and will be buried in a coffin he made himself. All interesting, playback-inspiring details in a song another band may have handled more boringly.
As good as that song is, this is chiefly a fast-paced, good time album. Some songs work better than others, although you can imagine them all sounding fantastic live (an instrumental, “Stab,” clues us in to the band’s instrumental superpowers). And it wraps up with “Pick & Roll” which—I hope I’m not barred from Austin for saying this—is as lively and catchy as the Archies’ “Sugar Sugar”. It’s tough to say whether this will be The Gourds’ breakout album, but it sure as hell deserves to be.