A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
February 3, 2004
The Gourds’ new album, Heavy Ornamentals, is a weird little masterpiece, though that can be said about most of their records. Like their best work — and who knows, in the long run this could end up ranking with it — it’s fun-time, rootsy music with just the right touch of the bizarre.
Led by two twisted songwriters, Kevin Russell and Jimmy Smith, with master instrumentalists Max Johnston on a deadly arsenal of strings and Claude Bernard on keyboards and accordion — and don’t forget Keith Langford on drums — the Gourds live up to the motto you can find on their Web site: “Music for the unwashed and well read.”
I’m hardly the first to compare this Austin group with The Band, and that might be a good point of reference to start with.
But if you listen closely, you might hear faint, coded echoes of Firesign Theatre or maybe even the Three Stooges. The Gourds, even on their “pretty” songs, always seem on the verge of a huge, cosmic belly laugh, a joke that nobody, maybe not even the Gourds, is meant to fully understand.
Part of the Gourds’ charm is how effortlessly they can go from the mundane, like “New Roommate” (“My new roommate’s got him a green thumb/Queer fluorescent lighting and an 8-foot bong”), to the mythological. Take the first verse on “Burn the Honeysuckle” — Russell sings with only a marching-beat drum behind him:
“I was born in the summer with black gum on my heels/Full grown and cussin’ and bleach on my wheels/Killed me a panther before I was even grown/With a pocket knife and a guitar string and a live honeycomb.”
He’s Davy, Davy Crockett. He’s Big Bad John, Jumpin’ Jack Flash. He’s the Hoochie Coochie Man. He’s the one, he’s the one, the one they call the Seventh Son.
And by the second verse, Russell drawls about marrying a girl “raised on mustard greens and bears.”
On first listen, Heavy Ornamentals sounds more “country” than the group’s previous album, Blood of the Ram, which was a juiced-up joyride into garage-band heaven.
It’s not just the sweet, old-timey fiddle and mandolin workout of “Stab,” or the untitled, unlisted Hobbitgrass ditty that closes the album. There’s a country feel all over the place.
Some musical elements are showing. The intro of “Weather Woman” sounds a lot like Neil Young’s “Southern Man.” “The Education Song” has a melody that soul guru Dan Penn could have written. “Pick and Roll” has some keyboard licks I think were stolen from Vivaldi.
The Gourds were pals with the ascended master Doug Sahm, whose ghost is loud and proud on “Shake the Chandelier.” It begins like the funky reincarnation of “She’s About a Mover.” When Russell’s vocals start and Bernard’s greasy keyboards play off Johnston’s fiddle — and then a grungy guitar solo ends the song — you know it’s homegrown in Gourdsville.
The big sore thumb on this album is “Our Patriarch” — sticking out for its strange, wounded beauty. It’s a slow, mournful melody that starts out with a wistful acoustic guitar accompanied by a sad piano and stark drums. It’s almost like a Palace Brothers tune, until Johnston comes in with a fiddle that might remind old Jerry Jeff Walker fans of David Bromberg’s accompaniment on “My Old Man.”
In some ways, the Gourds can be seen as keepers of a hidden flame, a Skull and Bones Society of misfits disseminating vital secrets to those with ears to hear and the need to know. Either that, or just a bunch of good-time Charlies whose fun is transcendental.
The Gourds are scheduled to open for Ralph Stanley at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Feb. 23. For a big ol’ dose of The Gourds, tune in to The Santa Fe Opry, 11 p.m. tonight, Feb. 3, on KSFR, 90.7 FM (also streaming on the Web.)
* For a Decade of Sin: 11 Years of Bloodshot Records OK, I’m not sure why the folks at Bloodshot didn’t do this a year ago, when it would have been their 10th anniversary. Either they wanted to be different or, more likely, it was some painful combination of Murphy’s Law and human error.
But that’s what I love about Bloodshot. Even though they’ve produced some of my favorite music in the past 10 or 11 years, the little Chicago “insurgent country” company has always done it on a human scale.
Like their fifth-anniversary collection, For a Decade of Sin has contributions from the usual gang — unrepentant beer crier (and former Santa Fe resident) Rex Hobart; the underappreciated Kelly Hogan (who does a stunning and sultry tune called “Chicken Road”); the Mekons’ angelic demon Sally Timms; those bluegrass bad girls called the Meat Purveyors; the hard-rocking Yayhoos (who cover “Love Train”); steel-guitar whiz Jon Rauhouse (whose version of the theme from The Magnificent Seven is a highlight); Wayne “The Train” Hancock (teaming up with Hank Williams III); pub-rock icon Graham Parker (who now has released two Bloodshot albums); and of course those Bloodshot standard-bearers, the Waco Brothers (who do a raucous, if somewhat predictable, “I Fought the Law.”)
There’s also an impressive visitors section, including Carla Bozulich (ex-Geraldine Fibbers), who does a country tear-jerker called “Lonesome Roads”; Richard Buckner, whose “Do You Want To Go Somewhere?” sounds like Twin Peaks country; that Japanese kewpie-doll duo Petty Booka; and My Morning Jacket, Kentucky alt-rockers whose “Behind That Locked Door” shows that this is a band with country music in its soul.
Some of the most impressive tunes are by lesser-knowns. Graham Lindsey is in his 20s, but his dark mountain tune “No Way Out But Down” sounds like the work of an ancient soul. And if the Starkweathers were more famous, their “Burn the Flag” would create a national outrage.
The only puzzling thing about this album is the absence of so many of the artists who helped build the company. Bloodshot alums The Old 97s are here. But where are Neko Case, Robbie Fulks, Alejandro Escovedo, and Melissa Swingle?
Hear selections from this collection around 10:30 p.m. tonight on KSFR’s Santa Fe Opry.
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