The Gourds – Shinebox


I have a new favorite band. They’re called the Gourds. Imagine a countrified fire-breathing mandolin-driven version of Los Lobos and you have a vague inkling of what The Gourds are like. Shinebox has a somewhat convoluted origins. It was formerly a seven-song EP of live material called Gogitershinebox and produced for an Amsterdam radio show. Five more songs were added for re-release in the U.S. Three original songs join covers from such diverse sources as Townes VanZandt, Billy Joe Shaver, David Bowie, Grin, and Snoop Doggy Dog. Yes, the Snoop Doggy Dog. This number, occupying the lead-off position of the album, is transformed from a rap tune to a redneck anthem.

The Gourds version also connects the dots from Robert Johnson to Roosevelt Sykes to Muddy Waters to Chuck Berry to… Snoop Doggy Dog. The Snoop just presents a graphic X-rated version of Johnson’s devil’s bargain. The Gourds version of David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” is equally revelatory. Instead of glitter, Ziggy is covered in cow droppings; it doesn’t get any more organic than that. Be forewarned that several songs, both originals and covers, have crude and graphic lyrics. Tipper Gore’s parental guidance stickers would be appropriate for Shinebox.

Unlike many “groups” the Gourds are very much a band, not “just” a lead guy with some sidemen. Everyone in the band sings, and they all play at least two instruments. Kevin Russell plays mandolin and guitar, Jimmy Smith handles electric and acoustic bass, guitar, and percussive embellishments (don’t ask), Claude Bernard contributes accordion, guitar, and B-3, Keith Langford delivers drums, maracas, tambo, and various other percolations, and Max Johnston nails down fiddle, banjo, and resophonic guitar.

Produced by the Gourds along with Mike Stewart, the sound varies from damn-near perfect to just this side of abysmal. On the live cuts, like “Omaha” or “I’m Troubled” the sonics are superb, so close to real live sound that you’d swear some drunk with beer breath is about to sit in your lap. Other selections, like “Jones, Oh Jones,” sound like it was done in a primitive home studio. Yuck.

Ever since I got this CD I’ve been trying to wear it out. I’m so jaded that usually a CD is lucky to last a week in heavy rotation before it gets alphabetically filed. Shinebox is a rare exception.

This CD is so much fun, so thoroughly cool, so musically essential, that it has been living on my CD player. I even got more than one copy so I don’t have to hunt around for it. I dare you to listen to it just once.

This review originally appeared in VG‘s Feb. ’00 issue.

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