Bolsa De Agua
Sugar Hill Records Inc.
A review written for the Folk and Acoustic Music Exchange
While some artists stick to a particular genre, trying their best to produce a consistent sound within the boundaries defined by previous works, another method is to take a whole lot of ingredients you like and toss them into a big burlap sack. Texas based alernative country outfit The Gourds latest release Bolsa De Agua cooks up a mixed buffet more in keeping with the latter approach. How well The Gourds earn their place at the table is like asking "how spicy should food be?" |
Although this release is my first exposure to The Gourds, they have a widespread reputation outside of the Lone Star State for pushing the limits of country music, and that's evident here. Bolsa De Agua is a musical smorgasbord of styles, like eating at a Mexican, East-Indian, Greek and Chinese restaurant - all on the same day. Mixing elements of gospel, folk, and bluegrass with elements of funk, zydeco and tex-mex, some people will be thrilled with the original outcome. Those with delicate palettes might prefer their food a little more consistent. From folk to funk or pop to punk, there's plenty to feast your ears on, even if every bite isn't perfect. While Texas music is all the rage right now, the diverse pot-luck of instruments and the three songwriters in the band keep the Gourds from tasting like the "plate of the day".
Sounds you'd expect from a so-called Americana act like mandolin, banjo and lap steel play off others like distorted electric guitars, accordions, and ukeleles. At times, the sound is reminiscent of early "no depression" founders Uncle Tupelo (a band which featured The Gourds newest addition Max Johnston). Most of the tracks, however, offer the Gourds own unique take on what might best be termed "alternative hillbilly." Regardless of styles, a sense of fun, verging at times on silliness, permeates every serving. It's easy to imagine that the Gourds reputation for a good live show is justified. Clearly, their musical recipe has met with some success, especially in their home state. This album finds the band on the respected Sugar Hill Label, who have also seen fit to reissue the bands earlier releases - a sure sign that the line-ups outside the door are getting bigger. This ambitious project even comes complete with a CD-ROM video track which I couldn't get to work on either an Imac or a new CD-DVD player.
Overall, the tracks are well distributed with the more familiar up tempo country songs interspersed appropriately with the experimental side dishes. When The Gourds serve up a plate of their best straight forward gospel-tinged acoustic country rock, as in the tasty lead track El Paso" or the heavenly Hallelujah Shine, it's a dish worth savoring. The band can introduce gospel to acoustic alternative country better than anyone else. Jesus Christ With Signs Following is a testament to that. But experimentation always comes with risks, and not every element complements every song. The repetitive rock sounds of Layin' Around the House and the ballad-like Flamenco Cabaret leave an aftertaste, as does the seven minute late-era Beatles experimentation of High Highs and Low Lows.
The lyrics are another point of interest, and actually, suffer or benefit from the same paradox as the music. At their best, the words provide some unusual food for thought or alternately, they read like a spaghetti soup of random sentences, which, though intriguing, make little initial sense. Songs like the aptly titled Pickles seem simple and straight to the point. Others, like the familiar No Depression inspired Tearbox could stump a Harvard shrink with a PhD. "Now my hair sticks up like the startled squirrels. It's always four in the morning. To understand these containers, I'll imitate a mile".
So when it comes time to gather the dirty dishes and wipe up the table, another serving of The Gourds isn't an unpleasant attraction. After all, if all we had to eat was meat and potatoes, the world would be a boring place. But a little focus goes a long way, and the fifteen song serving on Bolsa De Agua might not be The Gourds ultimate feast.