Thursday, July 17, 2008

Heaven Week: Gourds Edition

I posted a Gourds song at the tail end of our "Fifty States" week, but this week they're getting the blue plate special treatment. The Gourds have been one of my favorite bands of the last decade and I'm fortunate to live in Austin, where I've probably seen them 50-60 times. The first time I saw them ... and the only time I've ever seen them outside of Texas ... was in 1999 at a nearly deserted Birmingham, Alabama, dive called The Nick. I remember being awestruck that A) No one was here to see the band, since it wasn't like Birmingham was filled to the brim with entertainment options, and B) They were combining so much of what I loved about Doug Sahm, Los Lobos, and The Band, while at the same time, new wave and punk rock flavors were hovering in the mix. They also switched through probably a dozen instruments over the course of their set, which earned HUGE props from me. Whatever one called this mish-mash of vernacular sounds, it was clear that The Gourds were inhabiting a very unique musical ecosystem.

One element of the Gourdian gumbo that is "contextually unique," you might say, has been their occasional forays into "matters of the spirit," if not outright gospel. I say contextual because the vast majority of their contemporaries simply cannot (or, to be fair, choose not to) draw upon southern gospel roots with the authori-tay of The Gourds. It might be a discomfort with Christianity, it might be a perceived lack of authenticity (either internally or externally driven), or it might be the simple fact that you can't really sing a song like "Jesus Christ With Signs Following" and hide behind layers of fashionable irony. I mean, on some level, you gotta feel it in your soul, ya know? So, the songs I've chosen today are a sampler platter of The Gourds' doing religious music, far from complete, but comprehensive in its own way.

Gourds: God's House [purchase]

Gourds: Lament [purchase]

These are the bookend tracks to their 1998 album, Stadium Blitzer, but I've flip-flopped their locations. "God's House" is actually the last song on the album, secretly tacked onto the end of "I Like Drinking." It's an acapella number that kind of invokes old-time southern shape-note singing and while it's not a song I'd come back to over and over, I do think it's a perfect intro into The Gourds' love of gospel. It also showcases the perfectly ragged harmony singing of Kevin Russell and Jimmy Smith, whose voices work together in a John & Exene "This really shouldn't work, but I'll be damned if it doesn't kick my ass" kinda way.

"Lament" is Stadium Blitzer's leadoff track and is explained by Kevin Russell thusly: "My Uncle Jimmy lives next door to a Church of Christ and the preacher would come over sometimes and he'd always hide his beer and cigarettes. So, I wrote a song about it."

Gourds: Jesus Christ With Signs Following [purchase]

Max Johnston earned his stripes as a member of Uncle Tupelo and Wilco. In fact, it's his fiddle that drives last week's UT offering, "Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down." However, it's been his multi-instrument contributions to The Gourds that should be his calling card and that have certainly elevated the band to another level. Technically, the arrival of Keith Langford on drums in about 1999 was their initial foray into the stratosphere of respectability. That's because Mr. Langford is as steady in the pocket as his predecessor, Charlie Llewellyn, was charmingly ramshackle. Anyway, "JCWSF" was the first Max song to appear on a Gourds release and may have been his first proper singing track ... though there may be a Freakwater tune that predates this one. And if nothing else, it inspired me to get the great picture that leads off this post. How'd you like to be the claims adjuster for that guy's insurance plan?

Kev Russell's Junker: Church On Fire [purchase]

The Junker was Kevin's Gourds offshoot in name-only. Fact is, on this track Kev plays acoustic, Max plays mandolin, Keith is on drums, and Jimmy harmonizes, like they would on any Gourds release. However, Jimmy doesn't rock the funky bass because Kev enlisted the great Mark Rubin (Bad Livers!) to play tuba. That's right ... tuba. Talk about going old-school for your bass parts. A great obscurity in the Russell catalog, I love the tagline:

"I am just a preacher lookin' for a choir
But baby my church is on fire."

Shinyribs Me And Jesus [not available for purchase]

Shinyribs is another Kevin Russell Gourds side project, but this one is a true side project in that it doesn't have any Gourds on it. OK, Mike Stewart (who produced their first four albums) is on bass, but that barely counts. Recorded at a Threadgill's show just a couple weeks ago, "Me And Jesus" is an old Tom T. Hall song that Kevin absolutely takes to church. I LOVE Tom T, but his version sounds like he's trying not to throw his back out. Kevin, meanwhile, reaches down to his holy parts and just gets after it. Totally nails the song. In fact, a couple in the front row got so worked up, Kevin actually baptized them. By the way, the great slide guitar parts are courtesy of Austin's sardonic guitar hero, Jon Dee Graham, who sat in for the first half of the show. All in all, just a great performance. Get you some.

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