[9 July 2007]
Austin-based Americana artist the Gourds have long existed comfortably in a place somewhere between mainstream success and a fringe following, carving out a reputation as a freewheeling band with a penchant both for serious songwriting/instrumental chops and for not taking themselves too seriously. Well-versed in the techniques and tones of rock, bluegrass, folk, country, and blues, the band’s versatility has earned them a great deal of respect, while their image as a bunch of good ol’ Texas boys with the ability to eloquently address cultural phenomena over a round of longnecks has won the group unyielding loyalty from devoted fans.
Over the past decade, the Gourds have blended elements of each style in which they have displayed such striking ingenuity to create a curious and winning sound that has simply come to be known as “Gourds Music”. With principal songwriters Kevin Russell and Jimmy Smith laying the foundation for the band’s inventive, ironic material, and bandmates Keith Langford, Claude Bernard, and ex-Uncle Tupelo/Wilco compatriot Max Johnston fleshing the work out with great skill, the band’s ability to place their singular energy on full display has never come into question. On their tenth release, Noble Creatures, the band deviates ever so slightly from their modus operandi by placing what the album’s press material labels an “unprecedented focus on balladry.”
In said material, Russell explains that the increased presence of more delicate tracks started with the writing of a single song and snowballed to eventually afford room for three other ballads. After writing “Promenade”, which appears early in the album’s sequence, Russell said, “I knew when I wrote that song I wanted it to be on the album, but I wasn’t sure it had a place in the Gourds. It’s not the type of thing we usually do.” He also added, “I knew there had to be more ballads on the album so that ‘Promenade’ would have some context.”
Especially in the case of two of these tracks, “Promenade” and “Steeple Full of Swallows”, which graces the album’s second half, the group shows they have the sensitivity to record a great ballad. Both songs possess soaring melodies and instrumental textures that provide sturdy support without ever threatening to overpower the simple emotion expressed vocally and lyrically. “Steeple Full of Swallows” is arguably the album’s most affecting composition, retaining an uncharacteristic grace that allows the song to stand out even amongst tracks of its kind on Noble Creatures.
While these ballads certainly serve as touchstones of the album’s expressive center, longtime Gourds fans need not fear that the band is undertaking a far-reaching migration to wholly embrace gentility and sentimentality. All of the personality and rough edges expected in “Gourds Music” still comes resonantly through many of the album’s tracks, and though featured prominently, ballads do not dominate the album’s landscape. The depth and breadth of the album’s sound is contained in moments boisterous and diverse, captured perfectly in the opening passage of the album’s first track, “How Will You Shine”, which spotlights a melodiously played mandolin before turning into a horn-fueled romp that, as a great first track should, immediately engages the listener. “The Gyroscopic” is built around bluesy rock figures made manifest on guitar and organ, while “Out on the Vine” also derives energy from the organ work of Claude Bernard. Additionally, tracks like “Red Letter Day” and “Cranky Mulatto” provide fast paced pleasure; the former is a rambling, country-tinged affair, while the latter intersects Cajun and bluegrass sounds to great result.
Ever a hallmark of the total Gourds experience, the lyrics of Russell and Smith still provide a barrage of amusing and thought-provoking images. Any songwriters with the ability to create verses like “Jammin’ on the old cartoons with the swagger of the immune / Sleeping like a fat raccoon / diabetic on a honeymoon” (from “How Will You Shine?”), “So cheer up, the sluts are comin’ / The big orgy just a day away / Wake up with Beatrice in the bushes / Only in horniness will we prevail” (from “The Gyroscopic”), or “I was gagged, can’t drop no names / I was eatin’ fried eggs with a beer in Heathrow / And I lied, I’ve never seen her before / No, I was at home listenin’ to a box set” (from “All in the Pack”) can never be accused of a complete swing to the softer side of the spectrum. Those examples don’t even touch on the kind of crude and clever insight displayed on “A Few Extra Kilos”, an entire track devoted to the added weight (both physical and figurative) which comes with maturity (relatively speaking).
While the added diversity and the quality songwriting featured on Noble Creatures will logically increase the fervor of longtime Gourds fans and likely add a few to their flock, the album does contain an important point of weakness that keeps it from being a complete realization of the band’s gifts. As the album’s sequence progresses, the band chooses to close with three of the project’s most pedestrian tracks: “All in the Pack”, “Flavor on the Tongue”, and “Spivey”, serving to considerably slow the artistic momentum created on the first three-fourths of the record. For all the instrumental/lyrical energy of “All in the Pack”, the song lacks an inspired hook; the other two tracks simply come off as average and below the band’s usual par.
Despite this less than climactic conclusion, Noble Creatures is one of the more interesting and pleasing Americana records released this year. Though the band gives evidence to their ability to slow a track and achieve results that are as endearing as on more rollicking cuts, they show no signs of slowing in their capacity to parlay inspiration from a variety of sources, both musical and topical, into winsome tunes with the potential for connection with listeners who can appreciate the band’s eclecticism.