As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
Nov. 12, 2004
On their sixth or seventh album Blood of the Ram, The Gourds stretch out. You hear a wider array of influences -- ‘60s garage-band, ’70s soul, a touch of Irish folk.
This is hardly the first time this Austin band has painted with colors beyond their basic American roots pallet. After all, they first became notorious a few years when they did a version of Snoop Doggy Dogg’s “Gin and Juice” in their trademark Cajun-touched, south-Texas country sound with that unique hopped-up but clunky style.
So it makes weird sense when you hear echoes of Al Green on “Escalade,” or when you think of Pigpen-era Grateful Dead when you hear the organ on “Triple T Gas” or you wonder whether you’ve stumbled upon a long-lost aborted Rolling Stones collaboration with some unknown hillbilly singer on the hilariously crude “Turd in My Pocket.”
Indeed there are wicked references to The Gourds’ musical forbearers here.
“Spanky,” apparently inspired by shoplifting tykes in the fishing section of a discount store, is a countrified version of The Ramones’ “Beat on the Brat”; “Illegal Oyster” contains a Bizzaro World nod to Gershwin’s “Summertime,” in the lines “Well, your daddy’s broke/And your mother’s homely”; and the title song, sung in a pseudo Waylon Jennings register, can trace its roots to Sam the Sam & The Pharaohs’ “Wooly Bully.” (“He had great longhorns, harder than a pony keg/2 comin’ out of his head, one between his legs.”)
But the main reason Blood of Ram is such a kick is because it sounds like The Gourds.
You’re not always sure just what Kev Russell or Jimmy Smith, the main Gourd vocalists are singing about. Their lyrics are a jumble of picaresque tales, mystery oracles and half-formed dirty jokes.
“Wafer of bread, my last poker chip/Curse to you Chairman Mao crackin’ the whip,” Smith sings on “Triple T Gas.”
“31 days my fingers feel like rain/This jail was built on cracklins and cocaine,” is how Russell starts his surreal I-Fought-the-Law fantasy called “Cracklins.”
But with the irresistible musical backdrops, colored by Claude Bernard on accordion and Max Johnston (formerly of Uncle Tupelo and Wilco) on fiddle and banjo, it all makes sense.
Blood of Ram is full of what are bound to become Gourd standards. They’ve been together 10 years now and they just keep getting better.
*Dial W For Watkins by Geraint Watkins.Here’s another rootsy musical eccentric conjuring simple but irresistible aural magic.
Watkins, a 50ish picker from Wales, is mainly known as a sideman. He’s done studio work with Van Morrison, Paul McCartney and Tom Jones (!) and has toured with Nick Lowe (who plays bass and sings background on some cuts) Surprisingly this is his first American solo disc.
There are some tunes that are bound to twist your head off.
The album starts out with a slow, churchy minute-long tune called “Two Rocks,” which features Watkins crooning over soft organ chords. Then suddenly it turns into a Delta stomp called “Turn That Chicken Down” featuring a saxophone and harmonica over a National guitar. Watkins sings like he’s channeling T-Model Ford with a repeated refrain, “turn that chicken down, turn it down …” There’s a techno bridge. It ends with some trombone blurts.
The first tune that really sold me on this album was Watkins’ cover of the Brian Wilson/Van Dyke Parks classic “Heroes and Villains.” It’s done jump blues style, complete with scat singing, as if Louis Prima took a stab at Smile.
While “Chicken” and “Heroes,” as well as the cowboy swing of “Go West” are impressive novelties, it’s actually Watkins’ original soul ballads that give this album its staying power.
He’s got a lot in common with Lowe in his ability to nail smoky love songs like “I Will” and bitter heartache tunes “Bring Me the Head of My So-Called Lover.”
Watkins might also remind listeners of white soul songster Dan Penn on songs like the sad, soulful “Only a Rose” in which Watkins sings over a tremolo guitar, and “The Whole Night Through,” an upbeat, pretty, country-flavored declaration of devotion.
This is timeless music. Watkins might be a late bloomer at the age of 53, especially in a business still dominated by youth-culture. But I’m just glad he bloomed at all.
*Oval Room by Blaze Foley. Lucinda Williams eulogized him in her song “Drunken Angel” as Townes Van Zandt did in “Blaze’s Blues.” Merle Haggard immortalized him in his heart-wrenching cover of “If I Could Only Fly.”
But surprisingly, Austin singer-songwriter/character Blaze Foley -- who was shot and killed in a drunken argument in 1989 -- is next to impossible to find on CD. Live at the Austin Outhouse is out there somewhere. And now there’s this album, consisting mainly of Outhouse outtakes, produced by Gurf Morlix and John Casner.
There are several political tunes here, including the title song, which, written in 1988, proves that despite what you saw on t.v. this summer, not everyone loved Ronald Reagan.
Then there’s WW III, which is disturbingly timeless with lyrics like “I’ve been thinking, Uncle Sam, it’s time we went to war … If you don't hurry, sure enough/all these kids'll be grown up/be too old to die for you, so get 'em if you're going to."
Then there’s “Springtime in Uganda,” a diatribe against dictator Idi Amin that shows a shocking cultural insensitivity toward fundamentalist Islam and cannibalism.
But Blaze is at his best with his heartbreak songs. “My Reasons Why,” “Cold, Cold World” and -- especially -- “Someday” (with back-up here by the Texana Dames) are just waiting to be covered by George Jones or Haggard, who allegedly has made noises about doing an album of Foley songs.
Hear music from these CDs on The Santa Fe Opry, 10 p.m. to midnight Friday on KSFR, 90.7 FM and streaming on the web at www.ksfr.org.
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