On their fifth and best album, Cow, Fish, Fowl or Pig (Sugar Hill), the Austin band the Gourds sound more like a contemporary version of the Band than ever. They don't merely drift from country rock to bluegrass to gospel--they toss all those styles together, with no apparent self-consciousness or calculation. Kevin Russell, Jimmy Smith, and Max Johnston howl harmonies that are ragged yet right, and the quintet juggles a multi-instrumental arsenal that includes guitars, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, accordion, ukulele, and piano. But where the Band used narrative to explore Americana, the Gourds rely on absurdist humor. "My Name Is Jorge" is about a fruit seller whose contented outlook remains unchanged as he hawks his wares to an odd collection of historical figures--"And I sold me a lemon to Henry S. Ford / But he brought it back, I said, all sales are final," squawks Smith. In "The Bridge" Smith casts James Brown and his band in a retelling of "The Three Billygoats Gruff." ("If the billygoat was Bootsy / And the troll was Maceo / Only the godfather of soul / Can really take you to the bridge.") Russell's exaggerated rural accents are sometimes annoying, but they give life to his goofy wordplay, which usually makes no sense on paper. "Bottle & a Dime," which borrows musically from the Sonics' "Strychnine," is typical of his nonsense rhymes: "Throttle and shine fer a bottle and a dime / Make a model fer the crime / Bottle and a dime...it's awright." The Gourds have a sure-handed grip on their material and they never play it strictly for yuks; as a result their surreal comedy comes off as far more poignant than yet another heartland rock anthem possibly could. Friday, March 28, 10 PM, Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace; 773-478-4408.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/DK Langford.