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Cracking the Gourds 

This Austin quintet shakes, rattles and rolls.

There's a good chance you've heard the Austin-based quintet The Gourds, and didn't even know it. Usually, that means you've heard the Gourds shilling for Mazda or Microsoft or McDonald's. But the Texans' seepage into mainstream popular culture wasn't so calculated, nor did they make a penny off it.

A few years back, when everybody and their dog caught Napster fever, millions of Netizens were downloading even more millions of songs off the site, all free of charge. And a lot of those users had some faulty information as to song titles, and who the artists performing those songs were.

Somewhere along the line, someone got ahold of a copy of the Gourds' live cover version of Snoop Dogg's "Gin and Juice," and inaccurately labeled it as being performed by Vermont jam-daddies Phish. Never mind that the rendition was pretty much straight bluegrass, a style in which Phish has never traded; once it was labeled that way, it stuck.

The matter of due recognition where the Gourds were concerned wasn't helped by the fact that the song appeared on the band's Gogetyershinebox EP (1998), released on Watermelon Records, which filed for bankruptcy shortly after the disc's release, rendering the title out-of-print. Because the label owned the rights to the EP but didn't have the finances to produce and distribute it, in effect, the only way to get the sought-after track was by illegal means (i.e., Napster), no matter who got the credit for the song.

Regardless, no money was made off it, and the Gourds were left to try to convince the fans that it was, indeed, them playing the song everyone had stored in their hard drive--to get their due props, as it were. (Since then, the band has retrieved their entire back catalog and licensed it to Munich/Sugar Hill Records, which tacked on five tracks to the original EP, and released it as the full-length Shinebox [2001].)

Listening to the song, it's no wonder why so many people wanted it. A straight-up, deftly picked dose of speedy bluegrass, the laid-back hooks of Snoop's version are still there, even as they're subverted by the backwoods arrangement. That it manages to ascend the lowbrow trappings of "hillbilly singing g-funk" parody to achieve something so infectious and uniquely clever is no small testament to the Gourds' versatility and smarts. Though there aren't any hip-hop covers on the band's most recent album, 2002's Cow Fish Fowl or Pig (Sugar Hill), the same qualities apply to its success.

Those only familiar with "Gin and Juice" might be surprised at just how smart these guys--singer/bassist Jimmy Smith, drummer/harmonica player Keith Langford, accordionist Claude Bernard, guitarist/vocalist Kev Russell and mandolinist Max Johnson--actually are. The band's Website, www.thegourds.com, boasts that over the course of six albums, the group has written about all of the following: "desmond dekker, black adder, folk mythology, Oregon motels, baby gramps, Curtis Mayfield songs, Spanish poetry, u.s. currency, leadbelly, isopropyl alcohol, various controlled substances, sex, food, arachnids, insects, archetypal psychology, NFL, liquid gold, Sufis, preachers, old testament bible stories, mud, betrayal and masturbation's (sic)." The beauty is that these and other topics are most often brought into songs not to just sound smart or be funny, but to tell an engaging story, even if you're not always sure exactly what's going on in the narrative.

A perfect example is Cow's opener, "My Name is Jorge," an infectious four-chord, earthy acoustic jaunt that tells the story of a fruit peddler who claims, at the outset, that what one does with the fruit he sells them "ain't of my concerns." But, he then spends the duration of the song recounting famous people, both real (Muhammad Ali, John Prine) and fictitious (Little Jack Horner), playing on their history in regards to what fruit they bought from him: "I once sold me an apple to William S. Burroughs / He shot up his dope, his Wine sap, his girl / And I sold me a lemon to Henry S. Ford / But he brought it back, I said, all sales are final ... And I sold sugar cane to Harvey Oswald / He didn't shoot Johnny but I think he's involved." So much information is contained in those six short lines it would take pages to extrapolate, but even if the listener had no idea who the characters were, the song itself--that is, the melody and chord progression--is catchy enough to be memorable.

While the umbrella term for what the Gourds do would determinedly be "alt-country," the band truly embodies the term more than most lumped into that category: in the Gourds' world, the "alt" is at least as important as the "country."

Elsewhere on Cow Fish Fowl or Pig, the Gourds salute their heritage with the Tex-Mex-flavored "Foggy Blossoms (Mechanical Bride)" and merge folklore with funk legends on the surprisingly dirgey "The Bridge" ("If the billygoat was Bootsy / And the troll was Maceo / Only the godfather of soul / Can really take you to the bridge").

"Right in the Head" suggests Poi Dog Pondering, fronted by Springsteen doing his best Dylan (Mike Stewart, who produced the Gourds early in their career, also produced Poi Dog, as well as an early incarnation of Tucson's Liberty School), while "Ham-Fisted Box of Gloves" is as close to a Band-meets-Lynyrd Skynyrd power ballad as the Gourds will likely ever approach.

The angular, acoustic pop of "The Prayer Upon the Mirror" recalls that of the long-forgotten Balancing Act, as "Ceilin's Leakin'" sounds like a newly uncovered Keith Richards slink-groove from the mid-'70s.

And the tacked-on postscript to the album's final song, "Smoke Bend" (call it a bonus track, if you must), consists of the band's members passing around a portable tape recorder, taking turns improvising, a cappella, one line at a time, complete with tape-stop noises in between each entry (likely an homage to Captain Beefheart's "The Wind Blows Forward 'N the Dust Blows Back," which employed the same technique to a similar, absurd end).

It's a quasi-informed, verbal version of an "exquisite corpse" exercise, which one imagines was created in the back of the tour van, following a particularly Hornitos-doused show. As such, it yields such hilarious inanities as: "That little old man, he liked to snap the bras / He ate talcum powder, drank alcohols / Drivin' his Corvette to the mall / Found a bottle of pills and he took 'em all / He fell on the floor, he went, 'Call, call, call!' / First aid woman couldn't believe what she saw / There was jelly on his belly and blood on his jaw / Felt like he robbed Moses just to pay Pa."

It's a suitably ridiculous way to close out such an inspired album, and hell, if they can inadvertently convince people they're Phish covering Snoop Dogg, what can't they get away with?

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