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Bolsa de Agua

The Gourds, Sugar Hill CD

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The year before Austin legend Doug Sahm died, he told Gourds' cofounder Kevin Russell that he wanted to pass his legacy on to him, the same thing that Willie Nelson imparted to Sahm's band in the '70s. The Gourds must be making Sir Doug and the rest of the Austin kin right proud.

All of the Gourds' albums carry on the Austin tradition of featuring a mixed musical bag, crossing over honkytonk, bluegrass, zydeco, blues, gospel, and rock 'n' roll. But their style has always been even more loose and distinct, like an Austin patchwork quilt stitched together with threads of fairytale lore and swamp boogie--a sound so eclectic that they never could find one record label that would consistently allow them to pursue their creative instincts. The Gourds have at last found a most fitting home on Durham's celebrated Sugar Hill Records with their latest craft, Bolsa de Agua.

Now add to their repertoire a cozy barnyard waltz called "O rings," a Federico Garcia Lorca poem laced with castanets, and a song about pickling. Bolsa wallows in Russell's and Jimmy Smith's arcane yet canny songwriting, lyrical antics that can break your heart and crack you up at the same time. On "Tearbox" Smith sings, "A funny little tearbox/A chest full of laughter." Russell's lyrics connote a similarly paradoxical condition: "I'm cooking the chicken and eating crow/and pulling the meat right off the bone."

Even when the words sound bleak, though, the inventive music on Bolsa turns these introverted expressions into uplifting songs. Further integrating the virtuosity of newest member Max Johnston (formerly of Uncle Tupelo and Wilco), Bolsa concocts a richer tone than do the Gourds' previous releases. Johnston's dobro, fiddle, and pedal steel pack more swing into the Gourds' country sound, more chops into their bluegrass, and give the last song "High Highs & Low Lows" a rockin' intro redolent of The Who.

A fuller stage in no way compromises the band's homespun, front-porch flavor, however, a flavor which their new label has vowed to preserve. Following Bolsa de Agua, Sugar Hill is reissuing the Gourd's four previous albums starting in late October. Dem's some good beeble.

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