Album Review: The Gourds – Haymaker!

Most folks were introduced to the Gourds through their widely-circulated-by-way-of-Napster country cover of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin & Juice” (often improperly ascribed to Phish) in the late 90’s.  The cover is actually a great introduction to the band, who blend a plethora of musical styles into their songs, from country, blues, bluegrass, gospel, classic rock, and zydeco to all the other.  I myself have been a fan for about a decade now, and I own most of their albums and have seen them live around Austin several times.  A couple of weeks ago, Gordon and I attended the Gourds’ CD release party at Antone’s for their new album Haymaker! after I won a couple of passes from 98.1 KVET.  The show, while plagued by just a couple of pacing problems, was overall an energetic dose of a band that has rightfully claimed its place as an Austin treasure.

Having not yet heard Haymaker! with the exception of album opener “Country Love,” the live set got me very excited about the new record.  I had also read a couple of positive reviews that claimed that this was the Gourds’ most polished and best record to date.  Personally, I’ve always felt that their first record, 1997’s Dem’s Good Beeble, occupies the number one spot, but I was enthusiastic nonetheless.  After having purchased the album and given myself ample time to absorb it, I regret to say that my expectations have not been met.  There are some great songs on the album, to be sure, but as a cohesive statement, the record just isn’t doing it for me.

On the positive side, the record sounds great.  The production work is a noticeable step up from previous releases, and the multi-instrumentalist tendencies of the band members benefit from the slightly expanded production values.  The album’s final half is also peppered with some of the Gourds’ catchiest tracks.  “Country Gal” is a raucous stomp that contains one of the albums best lines: “She’s like a ruby rollin’ around in a bucket o’ dimes!”  “Shreveport” is Kevin “Shinyribs” Russell’s not-so-loving tribute to his hometown and its “buncha hair-do boys and their Spandex britches/and their big titty, fancy drunk ass bitches.”  This song is immediately followed by “Tex-Mex Mile,” a paean to losing ten years of your life to South Austin hookers and weed.

It’s no coincidence that all of the songs referenced above were written by Russell.  On both the album and at the live show, Shinyribs was invariably the band member to watch, what with his improvised dance moves and truck driver looks.  Interestingly, this marks a shift in the band dynamic, as past performances have usually drawn my attention more to bassist Jimmy Smith, who at times bears a striking resemblance to Cosmo Kramer.  But, as in the live show, Smith’s contributions to the record do not fare as well as they have on past recordings.  Songs like “Fossil Contender” and “Hey Thurman” are nearly interchangeable rock tunes, lacking much of the originality that made earlier Smith tunes like “Honduras,” “Caledonia,” and “My Name Is Jorge” so memorable.  Fiddle player Max Johnston’s two contributions to the record, “Valentine” and “Tighter,” while both solid, do not match up with some of his better work. 

I think I made two major mistakes with this record.  First, I read reviews of the album beforehand and allowed my expectations to be inflated.  Second, I saw the band live before hearing any of the songs, leaving me wide open for disappointment.  As the jerks over in the comments on my Phish post keep saying about that band, the Gourds are essentially a live act.  That is where their true heart lies, and where the songs truly shine.  The albums are always secondary to the live experience, but I do enjoy being able to familiarize myself with the tunes before hearing them played live.  Maybe, after having familiarized myself with the record, I will love these songs when I hear them live again at the next show.  But for now, I wouldn’t say that this is the Gourds’ best album.  Top five, maybe.

The Gourds – “Country Love”

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