Label: Yep Roc
Over the course of albums like Stadium Blitzer, Cow Fish Fowl or Pig and Noble Creatures, the Gourds have mapped out their own unique and often bizarre musical style. Though most commonly thrown into that giant vat of music described as “roots,” the band’s sonic palette is far more expansive than that and equally difficult to categorize. Elements of country and folk ride shotgun with snatches of bluegrass and blues, resulting in a concoction steeped in traditional music yet still highly original and inventive.
Though The Gourds’ reputation is primarily staked to its energetic and raucous live shows – or perhaps to its cover version of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice” – the band’s studio work has always been solid and dependable. Now closing in on their 15th year as a band, The Gourds, still consisting of Jimmy Smith, Kevin ‘Shinyribs’ Russell, Keith Langford, Max Johnston, and Claude Bernard, clearly know their way around a recording studio. There still isn’t a single dud album to their name.
The band’s latest product, Haymaker!, keeps that streak going. A brisk-paced album of 14 songs, it’s undeniably high energy and fast-moving; Russell recently commented that the band’s goal for the album was to capture the feeling of their live shows in a studio environment. In this respect the album is mostly successful. Tracks like “Country Love,” “Country Gal,” “Shreveport,” “Fossil Contender,” and “New Dues” rock and sway with a looseness that gives the songs a live quality, minus of course the broken beer bottles and intoxicated trucker-hat-wearing fans that pop up at the band’s concerts. Most of the songs nicely play to the band’s ability to synthesize a world of various musical genres. “All the Way to Jericho” rolls along with an airy country arrangement and subtle background vocals and harmonies, the unabashedly romantic “Valentine” plays like a country slow dance in a dilapidated barn, and closing song “Tighter” is driven by a guitar melody that recalls the Byrds and early R.E.M.
Nevertheless, Haymaker! is somewhat disappointing. The band rarely ventures into uncharted waters; though the majority of the songs are good enough, the spirit of adventure and risk taking that The Gourds have brought to both previous releases and live shows is largely absent. For the band’s more dedicated and hardcore fans – and really, is there any other kind when we’re talking about The Gourds? – the album offers few surprises and it’s hard not to feel like we’ve heard this story before. Occasionally Haymaker! also becomes tedious and repetitive; sometimes the songs blend into each other if the listener isn’t paying careful attention. It’s hard to tell where “Tex-Mex Mile” ends and where next song “Blanket Show” begins, while the character sketches of “Bridgett” and “Thurman” feature undeniably similar vocal and musical arrangements.
Still, any new release from The Gourds is worth hearing. To their credit, the band continues to operate on the fringes of so many different musical styles that it’s still hard to neatly categorize or cynically typecast them. Though Haymaker! is less engaging and surprising than some of The Gourds’ previous releases, at its best it still serves as a nice reminder of the band’s unique ability to blend country, folk, bluegrass, and other various elements into something that somehow sounds both traditional and wholly original.
by Eric Whelchel