The Gourds: “Haymaker!”
A friend once described Austin country-rockers to me this way: “They’re like Flannery O’Connor’s house band.” I think what he meant was that, like the best stories from the late, great Southern fiction writer, The Gourds’ songs capture a very specific sense of place– a South that isn’t just dirty, it’s downright crusty, caked in mud and sweat and blood. All manner of eerie ghosts rattle around in their music, most of them so bizarre, they couldn’t possibly be made up, at least not by anybody who hasn’t lived beneath the Mason-Dixon line their whole life.
But of course, like any metaphor, this one has its breaking point: O’Connor’s stories are ruthless in their bone-crunching violence and unrelenting in their darkness; the Gourds, meanwhile, possess both a knack for the very goofy and a sentimental streak the size of a Texas trailer. And that’s what gives their music its pull: It’s the give-and-take between their grimy Southern tropes and their big-hearted sentiments. Sure, they’re rough and grizzled, but deep down, they’re just a bunch of big teddy bears. Certainly that’s the case on Haymaker!, the latest chapter in a career that’s been so consistent, all the highlights have tended to blur together. Truthfully, that will likely prove to be the case with this new album, as well– it’s very much of a piece with their previous work, though the songwriting is arguably their finest yet, and the performances among their most exuberant– but so what? It’s a big, generous helping of thick musical gumbo, with lyrics about fossils and women with chocolate skin and Geddy Lee. What’s not to like?
Of course, that’s not really what the lyrics are about. Yeah, there are some weird images and metaphors here, but that’s just part of the band’s goofy sense of humor and their strong Southern instincts. Beneath all that, the Gourds write songs about love won and lost lost, love shared and love not returned– songs with big, kind hearts. Whether it’s a tear-jerking jukebox ballad like “Valentine” or a roaring rock sing-along like “Country Gal” and “The Way You Can Get,” these songs are tender, earnest, sincere. Flannery’d probably hate ’em, but The Gourds’ loyal fans just might find them to be some of the band’s best yet. If anything, they’ve toned down their goofiness just a bit for their most emotionally direct album yet. It’s the kind of album that’s propelled by big feelings and charming idiosyncrasies– love songs written by a group of grizzled Southern men who probably have a hard time expressing their feelings in everyday conversation, but really know how to open up in their songs.
Appropriately, the music is equally lean and direct. The Gourds have always brewed a tasty stew that’s equal parts country twang, rock and roll vigor, and Cajun spice, and this album is pretty much more of the same– a hearty helping of song and soul that hasn’t changed much over the years, but is just as nourishing and tasty now as it’s ever been. Age has only made the band looser, their voices a bit more grizzled, and it suits them well; this sounds like an album made by seasoned road warriors who have been playing with each other long enough to be able to simply lay back and let loose, trusting in their natural warmth and interplay to carry these terrific tunes. And warm they certainly are; for all their quirks and novelties– lest we forget, this is the same band that previously fried up tunes by Snoop Dog and David Bowie and gave them a Southern twist– the Gourds have always made music that’s soulful above all else, and that’s never been truer than it is here, on an album that doesn’t tamper with their proven formula, but reveals that it’s aged particularly well, and has never been in any great need of repair.