A dozen years in, the Gourds have made their best record yet.
"Your country loving is so sweet" sing the Gourds on their latest studio release, Haymaker!. Although the line is for a woman, they may as well be singing it about themselves. After more than a decade wherein they have earned a reputation for a smartass, hyper-clever lyrical repertoire, not to mention a smoking live show, to turn around and use their own word choice, "sweet", to describe their new record, may seem a slight. It's not. The focus the band possesses on this release, in storytelling and singing and playing, is a coup for country music as a genre.
That's not to say the Gourds have adopted the straight-and-narrow. The band many got to know through their cover of Snoop Dogg's "Gin and Juice" is still capable of proving there's a dunce cap or two lying around. It's just that now they sound a little life-worn, like maybe they've woken up and found themselves the teacher in this new classroom.
"The Way You Can Get" has all the musical earmarks and delivery of tongue-in-cheek Gourds. But through a rollicking beat augmented sparsely with a nice piano fill, the lyrics share heartbreak, "I know the way you can get / When trouble just follows you / I know the way you can get / When sorrow just swallows you." They get their best George Jones on with the despair of "Valentine": "I go to squeeze my valentine / But the yearning is only mine." Taking vocal cues from the slur of punk (an old Gourds trick, used to great effect here), "Bridgett" opens with the stark statement, "It was there that I met her / On the way to some crisis", quickly gets around to the attempted breaking of innocence and ends with the subject walking away with a "Thanks for the lift / You old geezer." The song, in just over three minutes, takes a journey through a deciding moment. The Gourds, with no heavy-handedness, simply paint the details for us.
One of the clear standouts is "Shreveport". It's a classic country tune with an updated, honest twist. The narrator, sounding a bit of a mess, needs to get out of town. "Roaches in the ashes / A truck jammin' Lime Light / Look like it's gonna be / Just me and Geddy Lee tonight." The fiddle dances in the background, sitting atop the perfect cacophony of the rest of the instrumentation, including a very well placed accordion. Eventually, he gets around to finding a friend who asks for some beer with an acknowledgment that he's just gotten paid but is already broke. "We spent the rest of the night / A-singin' by his mama's grave." The song ambles on until the end, perfecting that feeling of solidarity in loneliness.
Granted, Haymaker! is a grower. There's a dedication to the country/Tex-Mex sound that may not immediately appeal to new listeners. It's been around, and those who like it will immediately appreciate the Gourds's nuances. Luckily, it's those exact nuances that should win over the careful skeptic with time. It's the staccato in the guitar line in "Blanket Show" when it could be played fluidly (read: boring). It's a breaking syllable in "New Dues". And it's the crisp sound of a plethora of instruments fading in and out of "All the Way to Jericho" that does it. It may sound rote at first, but the band brings it far beyond that.
In the past, the Gourds have been good with moments of greatness. With Haymaker!, it's clear they have turned a corner. Whereas once the jokes were entertaining, now they're more uniformly hiding bits of tragedy. This doesn't rain on anyone's parade. Luckily, the Gourds have the spirit of the fully formed human being. They see the darkness with the light. It makes for the best kind of storytelling. With their talent and the craftsmanship they have so steadily displayed here, it also makes for the best set of tunes. With this latest, and a dozen years in, the Gourds have released their finest record yet. This kind of country loving can't be anything but sweet.