The Gourds,
Bolsa de Agua
(Sugar Hill, 2000)

American fusion is the only way to describe the Gourds' style. Any attempt to pin it down more tightly leaves out more than it includes. Bolsa de Agua ranges from bluegrass to rock, often in the same song, pausing often in traditional country along the way. That's the musical style; the lyrics come from a solidly rock sensibility.

One of the risks of fusing disparate traditions together is that the fusing may not take, and the result can be a track in which it sounds like each of the musicians is playing a different song. The Gourds do not always avoid this problem. Some of their songs, notably "El Paso," are solidly fused, while others, like "Big Santiago Bust," have promise but don't sound finished. The 52-minute CD is about evenly divided between these two types.

The Gourds seem to do best when the bluegrass is prominent. "Bugs" is a bluegrass instrumental with discernable Celtic elements, and one of the album's best tracks. "El Paso" starts the album strongly, with a bluegrass/country top overlaid on a solid rock base. "Receipts & Fevers" is similar, and in both the blend of bluegrass vocals and banjo with rock bass and drumming works very well indeed. "Pickles" is even more bluegrass-flavored, although the song structure is similar to rock.

Traditional country with a rock beat is another of the Gourds' strengths. "Jesus Christ (with Signs Following)" is the Gourds' twist on religious country, and I wish I could hear the lyrics better or have the text supplied. The strongly gospel-influenced "Hallelujah Shine" is one of them, although I couldn't make out enough of the lyrics to get a good idea of the subject matter. In "Meat Off the Bone" the singer bemoans his life while cooking, with an exaggerated effect that adds to the song's charm. "Turn My Head Around" combines sad lyrics with bouncy instruments in a musically tight and entertaining song. "O Rings" takes the opposite approach: melodically sad, but with upbeat lyrics and a truly odd metaphor.

The more insistently rock, and the experimental tracks, are generally less successful. "Layin' Around the House" is the worst; while its repeated build-up and lack of resolution is conceptually interesting, it's frustrating and irritating to hear, particularly since the lyrics are on the verge of the comprehensible without ever quite being clear enough to hear. "Flamenco Cabaret" sounds like the various musicians were playing different songs at the same time; it just doesn't come together into a coherent whole. That's the problem with most of the songs in this style, in fact. "High Highs & Low Lows," the final song on the CD, incorporates many rock cliches into piece that never comes together in its over-seven-minute length. Other examples on the album are "Waterbag," "Big Santiago Bust" with its intriguing phrases, and "Tearbox" which starts as a slow country song, then wanders off.

Since my review copy was an advance CD, it didn't include the liner; I don't know if the Gourds included lyrics to their music there. I hope they did; it's often hard to catch the lyrics from the music, and they're worth hearing.

If you like alt-country you might love this album, particularly if you like experimental music that's pretty rough around the edges. I would have preferred it if the Gourds had pulled more of their songs together; while I like improvisation, it's best if it sounds like the musicians had either played the song before, or played together enough to work smoothly together. "Bugs" proves they can do it, and I hope they do on their next album.

[ by Amanda Fisher ]

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