Glory Hallelujah

They're unabashed freaks of the music world--young men playing bygone music, children raised on rock and roll who long ago decided they were no longer interested in electric guitars and snare drums and amped-up anarchy. Their weapons of choice are instruments that belong in yellowing black-and-white photographs: banjos and mandolins, dobros and wood guitars. Their records are brand-new but often sound like cleaned-up 78s discovered in attics. The only things missing are the pops and clicks and hisses that history wears into grizzled grooves. Even the song titles sound as though they were lifted from history books: "Caledonia," "Ghosts of Hallelujah," "Pine Tar Ramparts," "Lament," "Coppermine."

This is rock and roll at the end of the century. Suddenly, the finish line looks a whole lot like the starting point.

Kevin Russell and Jimmy Smith, co-singers and songwriters in the Gourds, didn't plan it this way, didn't intend to play traditional music with museum instruments. They're rockers from way back, young men who once played in a Dallas band Russell would later insist took its cues from Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, and the Replacements. A decade ago, he and Smith never dreamed of playing with a fiddle-banjo-dobro-accordion player who, at 29, is only now being introduced to the Beatles. For God's sake, where do you even find a guy like that?

"I don't ever wanna rock again," Russell insists from his home in Austin. "It's too loud. I can't handle that volume. I can't sit and listen to those kinds of bands anymore. If some guy's pissed off about something, I don't wanna hear about it. I'm not interested. I love this Gourds thing. Hell, one day I'd like to play with even less--no drums or bass, just me and two or three people, a real stripped-down thing. That's more of where I'm headed. I'm gettin' old--I'm 31." He doesn't laugh when he says this. He ain't joking.

Maybe that's because when you listen to the Gourds' four albums--1996's Dem's Good Beeble, 1997's Stadium Blitzer, last year's gogitchyershinebox EP, and the just-released Ghosts of Hallelujah--he doesn't sound at all like a young man. Levon Helm is more like it, back when the Arkansas traveler was hitting those sweet-spot high notes with four Canadian journeymen behind him. Russell's got a voice that belongs behind glass--it belongs to the ages, all twang and glory.

It's Jimmy Smith who still sounds like the rock star, Nebraska-era Bruce Springsteen doing Eddie Vedder impressions on Hoot Night. Nothing pretty about his voice; it's all power and command, volts and watts. You can almost see the spotlight on him when you listen to the Gourds' records. Together, Russell and Smith are like yesterday and tomorrow--John Doe duking it out with Exene Cervenka, Gram Parsons tangling with Emmylou Harris, and on and on. Their voices fit together like muscle and skin.

Especially when heard on Ghosts of Hallelujah, the finest of all the Gourds' albums, because it's the first to capture what this band sounds like on stage. It's a hurricane instead of a breeze, no overdubs and everything written in stone after only two or three takes. If its predecessors were like sloppy Saturday-night drunks cleaned up for Sunday-morning church, the new disc is reckless and all the better for it. It's not afraid to get loud ("Ladies Choice"), not afraid to play low and slow ("Pair of Goats"), not afraid to let it rip and pay for the consequences later on. The whole thing sounds as though it were recorded on a front porch in about a week.

And this time around, the Gourds count among their ranks the likes of drummer Keith Langford (stolen away from the Damnations TX just after the band finished recording its major-label debut, Half Mad Moon) and multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston, the secret weapon behind Uncle Tupelo's 1993 farewell Anodyne and Wilco's 1995 debut A.M. Man for man, including multi-instrumentalist Claude Bernard, there's probably not a better band in Texas right now.

As good as the Gourds' earlier recordings are--especially the EP, with its live tracks and novel-but-not-novelty takes on David Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust" and Snoop Doggy Dogg's "Gin & Juice"--Ghosts of Hallelujah far exceeds them all. It's archaic and immediate at once, rollicking and plaintive and somewhere in between, as indescribable and familiar as damp air on a summer morning. Imagine The Band recorded 30 years after the fact, or Anodyne by boys who never had to try to sound authentic. It's country music, if your idea of country means a large land mass with lots of options in between stops on the map. It's traditional if your definition of the word means every single thing that came before yesterday.

After two records spent proving a band need not plug in to rock the house, the Gourds have finally managed the impossible: Ghosts of Hallelujah puts the listener smack in the middle of one of their concerts, among the swirling hippie chicks and Shiner Bock boys who hoot and holler their way through the originals and brilliant covers, among then "Gin & Juice" recast as an Appalachian breakdown. Sure, there's nothing funnier than listening to Russell sang-and-twang about the "bitches in the living room gettin' it on" and his "pocketful of rubbers." But once the smile subsides, there's the actual song to deal with--a gangsta anthem transformed into a folkways gem. This time around, there's "Gangsta Lean," the funkiest thing The Band never recorded.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky