Old Mad Joy
For well over a decade, the Gourds have made a career out of confounding expectations. Their backwoods appearance and down-and-dirty roots grooves suggest just another redneck party band, but beer-drinking and hell-raising don’t begin to cover all they do. Fronted by oil-and-vinegar singer-songwriters Kevin Russell and Jimmy Smith, the band churns out songs of surprising variety, some hyperliterate, others maddeningly obtuse, and, yes, a few that qualify as beer-drinkers and hell-raisers. The dichotomy suits their hometown Austin fans, but others have had a hard time wrapping their heads around the group. It hasn’t helped that many Gourds albums have been slapped out between gigs. Not this time. Old Mad Joy (Vanguard) is the sound of the Gourds putting their shoulders to the wheel. With no personnel changes since 1999, the five members of the group have always been tightly attuned to one another, but producer Larry Campbell (who recorded the album in the Woodstock studio of former Band drummer Levon Helm) has brought their cohesion to a razor-sharp point. Songs are tighter, the singing is sharper, the arrangements more distinct; there are intros and key changes, and Smith’s serpentine melodies have been reeled in. Yet Campbell does all this without compromising the Gourds’ energy or quirkiness. It’s ironic that the band’s most fussed-over studio recording is the one that comes closest to re-creating its onstage exuberance. But when have these guys ever been predictable?