Sunday, January 15, 2006

CD Review: The Gourds - Heavy Ornamentals

Heavy Ornamentals, the eighth studio album from the legendary alt-country outfit the Gourds, is the perfect companion to standing over a smoky Weber with a cold one in hand on a hot Texas afternoon. The Gourds are the consummate thinking-man's party band, strutting lyrics bordering on the beautifully obtuse and strumming tunes catchy enough to incite a swamp riot.

Hailing from Austin, one of the great music cities in the country, the band’s left-of-center approach is lauded by critics and fans all along I-35. The Gourds ability to thrive in this environment for the past eight years is a testament to their appeal. It also doesn’t hurt to have great musicians and songwriters like Kevin Russell, Jimmy Smith and the "stringed assassin" Max Johnston (formerly of Uncle Tupelo and Wilco).

Gourds music is typically characterized by healthy jumbles of Texas country, Americana (non-Nashville country), zydeco, bluegrass, and punk. But I don't want that to scare off the uninitiated. Go to and check out some of the sound clips to get a feel for the band. Then come back here and continue reading.

You back? Good. As you might have guessed, I really like this record. I like it more than my favorite CD of 2005, Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s Come on Back.

Kevin Russell is truly a “twang master.” His vocals on “The Education Song” and “Our Patriarch” is greatness. His voice can not be overrated. Jimmy Smith comes through, too. Though vastly different from Russell, Smith brings a raw “rock & roll” sound to the table. Jimmy’s lyrics, though purported to be a little more serious on this record, can still be just plain absurd. Take “Collections Getting” as an example:

This here, the difficult third verse.
Jolly Joe drink his cappuccino.
Jolly Joe drink his cappuccino.
Jolly Joe drink his cappuccino.

It’s really hard to describe how much fun this album is to listen to. It appears that one of the most entertaining live bands in Austin has figured out how to transfer all the energy and spontaneity of a live performance into a recording. That’s rare.

I have a tip to share regarding getting the most out of the sound. This CD sounds much better when played on a traditional stereo than on a computer with headphones. The sound is much fuller when it has more to bounce off of than your eardrums. I used headphones the first few listens and wasn’t terribly impressed by the levels and mixing, but a $30 CD jambox in the backyard turned me completely around on that.

The one thing missing from this album are Max Johnston tracks. His tunes have become a welcome addition since he started contributing in Bolsa de Agua.

Once everything’s said and done, this record should satisfy current fans' appetite for another "legal" recording to play in their iPod, produce a new crop of fans who will wonder why Jimmy Smith carries a "man purse" in all the photos, and, finally, further the legend of the band that makes "music for the unwashed and well read."

Track lowdown:
  1. “Declineometer” – catchy tune with great writing

  2. “Burn the Honeysuckle” – mandolin and accordion were made for each other

  3. “Mr. Betty” – nice rock tune featuring Johnston’s fiddle

  4. “Shake the Chandelier” – this is why the Gourds are the greatest party band alive

  5. “New Roomate” – Jimmy takes a humorous look at wheels-off roommates

  6. “Hooky Junk” – see “Shake the Chandelier”

  7. “Weather Woman” – ever been inspired to write a song while watching the TV weather report and listening to Neil Young’s “Southern Man”?

  8. “Stab” – Johnston and Russell go after it in this Celtic-influenced instrumental

  9. “Our Patriarch” – just a beautiful song and a great departure for the band

  10. “The Education Song” – a fast, soulful “message” song that reminds me of a cross between Steely Dan circa 1973 and Otis Day and the Knights

  11. “Collection’s Getting” – see “Jolly Joe”

  12. “Pill Bug Blues” – kind of a cross between Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” and Clapton’s “Promises”

  13. "Pick and Roll" - they call it a "filk song," but I'm not hip enough to know what that is