By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Authenticity as a concept has been something of a bugaboo since before Ry Cooder started imitating dust-bowl farmers and African-American Pullman porters. Nowadays--with retro Americana all the rage--its boundaries are even more blurred. But just as a guy in an Armani suit can get out of a Lexus and address you in accents that are pure East Texas twang, the Gourds cut through contrivance and deliver an album that is as modern (yet rooted in tradition) as a 7-Eleven across the street from the family farm.
They employ the usual signifiers--squeezebox, mandolin, acoustic guitar, sparse but effective production--yet the real resonance comes from the efforts of the Gourd's brace of singer-songwriters, Kevin Russell and Jimmy Smith. Both men's voices have the plaintive, keening edge that went out of country fashion in the '50s, but their songwriting has a sophistication that would (should) make 99 percent of the popsters out there blush.
Something about the pair's lyrics manages to be both direct and oblique at the same time; the song "Web Before You Walk Into It" combines a melancholy will to party ("You bought the last bottle last time, remember?") with the image of a spider web's perfection that is irrevocably damaged by the blundering that results. The listener's reaction isn't a given, but will probably vary according to his experience with those subjects; the songs have a broad applicability few of any genre ever attain. The Austin-based Gourds--who are excellent live--don't traffic solely in bleakness, though; there's a definite sense of humor on Beebles, a wink across the wrought-iron graveyard fence. How else could they immediately cut to the heart of self-pity with the hilarious and accurately titled "Piss and Moan Blues"? Or combine slapstick ("A little song/a little dance/a little seltzer/down your pants") with the archetypal hardheaded, stone-hearted blues mama who's the subject of "Caledonia"?
The songs range across styles without straining toward some flavor du jour. There's the zydeco huff and puff of "Piss and Moan Blues"; the up-tempo "Trampled by the Sun," which sounds like the Violent Femmes channeling Sam the Sham unplugged; and the tropical "Honduras," in which the clicking rhythms of castanets are mirrored by a rolling mandolin part. It's a genuine appreciation of variety that most sharply recalls David Lindley, particularly on "Sweet Li'l."
As with Lindley, with the Gourds there is, regardless of style, a common thread that unites all the songs and makes it almost impossible to tell the work of Russell from that of Smith. It perhaps is best described by one of their song titles--"A Ringing Dark and True," but smiling nonetheless.