The Gourds: Old Mad Joy
The Gourds recorded Old Mad Joy up at Levon Helm’s barn, with former Bob Dylan sideman Larry Campbell on the controls. The album serves up tunes that are Gourd-like, with disconnected lyrics that defy narrative comprehension but sound really good, such as Melchert. But Old Mad Joy is most Gourd-like in its eclecticism. It’s a long way from the rock of Drop What I’m Doing (which sounds like it might be a Stones song, but it’s not) to the simple Eyes Of A Child, with its message of redemption carried by Kevin Russell’s excellent vocals. “I come clean and I’m redeemed, since I have seen through the eyes of a child.”
Speaking of Kevin Russell’s vocals, Vanguard Records publicity on the album quotes a sentence about that voice from Pulitzer/National Book Award winner Annie Proulx’s recent autobiography: “I kept hearing the voice of the Gourds’ Kevin Russell, which always sounds to me like a graft of a carny hustler onto a Missouri River flatboat man, roaring about putting down his brown cow.”
So how does this record stack up to other Gourds records? Mr. Russell was asked how it compares to Haymaker! (2007) and Noble Creatures (2009) by Flagstaff Live recently (full interview here). Here’s what he said:
Old Mad Joy sounded great from the first notes and just gets better and better each time I hear it. The songs are classic Gourds DNA. I hear cousins all over this. Every Gourd record has its great moments. But this one, I think, has the feel of a great record more than the others.
William Michael Smith of the Houston Press talked to Gourds drummer Keith Langford about Old Mad Joy just after they recorded (and about using Levon Helms’s drum kit and Ringo Starr’s toms during their sessions – full interview here). Mr. Langford said that Mr. Campbell worked the boys in the band a bit more than they are used to:
That guy worked our asses off. I’m serious, by the end of the day we were just exhausted. He had so many ideas, and let’s face it, we’re a pretty lazy bunch of guys. But Larry was with us all the time and it was a magical experience working with a guy that smart and motivated. He really did right by us.
There are going to be lots of harmonies on this one. You know, we started out with lots of harmonies but as we got older and lazier we kinda drifted away from that. Larry pulled us back to that, and I think with good result.
The album does sound like a lot of work went into it. Long time fans of The Gourds might worry about that — too many harmonies, too much production, too slick? Joanna Horowitz’s note on the album in the Seattle Times raises that issue but says it goes away by the fourth track of the album. I hear no issue after the first track, I Want It So Bad, which is apparently the first single. I like that song fine, but I love the rest of the record. I can certainly imagine these songs quickly working their way into the band’s live shows. Mr. Russell addressed how The Gourds would use the “new songs” in their shows a recent NoDepression blog post:
We are off on our first tour for Old Mad Joy this coming week. Which means we will be playing a lot of songs off of it. I don’t think we have ever been more prepared for the release of any record. Still, the nerves are a little edgy. The thought is that most of our fans have not heard these songs much. They will want to hear the old faves still. Playing too many new ones carries the risk of alienating the audience. So, each night I am thinking of perhaps doing maybe 4 or 5 of them. The band wants to play all of them every night because they are new. We haven’t had new songs in so long. It’s like getting new panties. Ya just wanna run around in’em and look at’em and show’em off. But, your old panties were so loved by so many, they want to see those old tighty whities still.
If you look at the setlist from the September 9 Phoenix show, the boys have their new panties on already. (Thanks to The Gourds News for the setlist info.)
I plan to go see The Gourds’ panties (old and new) really soon, probably during the AMA’s in Nashville next month. Meanwhile, I’m going to listen to this excellent album, which is one of the best I’ve heard in 2011.
Old Mad Joy is The Gourds’ first on Vanguard Records, home to Merle Haggard, Chris Isaak, Indigo Girls, Levon Helm, Robert Cray and many others.
Mando Lines is on Twitter @mando_lines. You can follow Kevin Russell on Twitter, too: @shinyribs.