A Perfect Union Of Talent

The Gourds' 11th album shows a perfect union of talent
By Wilfred Langmaid
September 15, 2011

The Gourds: Old Mad Joy

The Gourds' major-label debut Old Mad Joy is career fruition for these veteran Austin, Texas alternative country rockers.

Guitarist Kevin Russell and bassist Jimmy Smith split compositions and lead vocals down the middle. This hallmark of two distinctive and capable frontmen and singers has always given The Gourds a rich double-pronged attack.

Claude Bernard (keys), Keith Langford (drums), and multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston complete a tight quintet of men who play well and who have played together for years.

Released Tuesday, The Gourds' 11th album in 14 years is a perfect union of talent at a pivotal career stage and the perfect producer and setting for that time. Old Mad Joy was cut in Levon Helm's Woodstock, New York studio.

The producer was Larry Campbell, who appears tonight in Fredericton as a key foil in Helm's Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival headline show. This will be Campbell's first time in Fredericton since 1997 when he appeared as a member of Bob Dylan's band.

Campbell also adds his own steel or electric guitar on eight of the dozen tracks on Old Mad Joy.

Russell's material has more of a country tinge and a southern spice. His lyrics are rich, often surreal, and always crisply drawn.

What his vocals occasionally miss in reach is always exceeded in feel.

There are rollicking moments like the roots with accordion and mandolin Band-like gospel of the album opener I Want It So Bad and the driving rocker Peppermint City.

The harmony-rich Two Sparrows is a two-step with a beat, while Ink And Grief is a personal anthem of a singer/songwriter bearing pop-pier hooks than Russell's norm.

Smith offers the rocker counterpoint. His songs often address love sought, last or lamented.

The surreal moments are there too, albeit less than with Russell. Vocally, he is also more conventional overall.

The garage rock of Drop The Charges comes complete with a Suzi Quatro reference. Drop What I'm Doing has Stones blood running through its veins, while the 4/4 surrealism of Melchert conjures up a Tom Petty cover of Chest Fever.

Marginalized is Smith's existential search of the album; its twisted lyrics are married to a melody and style that fit.

Johnston has been part of The Gourds since 1999 after cutting his teeth with Uncle Tupelo and Wilco. He lays down tasty mandolin, violin, and acoustic guitar as appropriate for Russell and Smith's pieces.

He also tends to offer his own song or two per album, and this time it is the rollicking mid-tempo piece Haunted. The most country-cored track of the album as it moves into its own southern rock groove is also a song where Campbell's steel is critical.

The album closes with respective closing statements by Russell and Smith. Eyes Of A Child is Russell's personal anthem par excellence, while Your Benefit shows that Smith is, above all else, a card-carrying member of the Dylan/Band folk rock continuum.

The same can really be said for this growing band, now posed for wider attention and acclaim with this major label gem.

Fredericton-based freelance writer Wilfred Langmaid has reviewed albums in The Daily Gleaner since 1981, and is a past judge for both the Junos and the East Coast Music Awards.

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