Ram tough 

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Over the years, critics have taken to comparing Austin roots-rock quintet the Gourds to the Band, and it's not hard to see why. In the spirit of the Band, the Gourds have absorbed so many strains of bedrock American music that they've arrived at a synthesis all their own. Like the Band, they're archaic but speak to the moment, literary but proudly colloquial.

But the Band peaked early and never regained the heights of their first two albums. The Gourds, on the other hand, continue to blossom after eight highly prolific years and a long list of albums and EPs. One key difference: While the Band created the appearance of democracy - with three lead singers and interchangeable instrumental duties, Robbie Robertson hogged the songwriting pie, but the Gourds exemplify true democracy.

Kevin Russell and Jimmy Smith both write well enough to dominate most bands, but in the Gourds they are content to split song rations with multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston. Though the group often gets branded alt-country, it's fascinating to note how much R&B and funk permeates Blood of the Ram. Russell's "Escalade" employs a luxury gas guzzler as a metaphor for blithe decadance in the face of world extinction. Smith namechecks Chairman Mao in the driving "TTT Gas" and makes like Roger McGuinn in double-time on "Wired Ole Gal." With the Stax-in-overalls lament, "Turd In My Pocket," he delivers a classic, potty-mouth chorus: "You can't shit me/I already got a turd in my pocket."

The album's peak comes from Russell's "Cracklins," a twisted Deep South tale worthy of Larry Brown, over a nimble bluegrass arrangement and gorgeous chord changes: "Chicken sneezed eatin' my cracklins/buttercup bloomin' in the badlands/kaboom kaboom piss on the curses/hospital kiss all the nurses."

In Gourds songs, the characters define themselves by what they consume - usually some combination of ribs, eggs, pork skins, weed, and wine. Fortunately, the Gourds' own musical appetites remain voracious, and with Blood of the Ram, they've topped themselves yet again.

By Gilbert Garcia



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