The Gourds: Cow Fish Fowl or Pig (Sugarhill)

The band’s participatory factors are incredible—they all play at least two different instruments—and also harmonize in an old-time, Band-like way.

When was the exact moment on the Gourds’ timeline that they decided to start making albums of The Band’s kin? It certainly wasn’t their first excellent effort, Dem’s Good Beeble, with its hillbilly, Tex-Mex swagger. Maybe it was the addition of Max Johnston (cq), the multi-instramentalist who departed from Wilco after they sought the pop/rock realm of the industry.

Johnston’s musical skills (and the rest of the Gourds’) were applauded on ghosts of hallelujah, his debut album with them, by the Austin music scene, which voted it the best roots rock album of 1999. On the follow up to hallelujah, Bolsa de Agua, Johnston takes some of the songwriting credits out of the hands of Kevin Russell and Jimmy Smith with a couple of Big Pink-era originals. Now, with Cow Fish Fowl or Pig, the Gourds as a quintet are blowing down all music barriers and opening the floodgates for their original music. The band’s participatory factors are incredible—they all play at least two different instruments—and also harmonize in an old-time, Band-like way. Russell’s rough and twangy voice (“Ants on the Melon” and “Bottle and a Dime,” the most booty-shakin’, ass-kickin’ song on the album) somehow replenishes itself with the richness of Levon Helm-style singing (“Sweet Nutty,” “Ham-Fisted Box of Gloves,” and “Roll & Tumble”).

The utter insanity of Jimmy Smith’s voice and lyrics remain (see “My Name is Jorge,” “The Bridge”—one line says it all: “If the billygoat was Bootsy/and the troll was Maceo/only the Godfather of Soul/could really take you to the Bridge”—and “Ceiling’s Leakin’,” a Bowie in the ‘70s style rocker). Smith’s “Hellhounds” is also a great, Sahm-like, psycho-mex song, with a wonderful melody and story to match. Johnston keeps the Gourds back in the stratosphere of their acoustic roots with three tracks, “1st in Line,” “Blankets,” and “Best of Me,” all of which offer warmth in harmony, instrumentation, and lyrics. Max isn’t the only Johnston with musical talent: his father joins the band for the slow-rolling folk-ball of “Smoke Bend.”

This is a wonderful album (not to mention band) that deserves more recognition for originals than for hillbilly/rap covers. The Gourds can take you anywhere from the tip of the Smokies to just beyond the border in search of the perfect tequila, or hopefully to the record store to buy this album.

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