"What the heck is a gourd?"

Border Radio was relaxing at his brother-in-law's home over the holidays, when his 13-year-old niece upended a cornucopia sitting on the kitchen table and posed the innocent question. "It's a type of squash," her mother replied. "Only you can't eat it." They can also be dried out and used as musical shakers, Border Radio chimed in.

A skeptical look crossed the girl's face as she examined its hard, bumpy, green-and-yellow rind. A fruit you can't eat, a percussion instrument that makes no noise. Our answers had failed to satisfy her curiosity. "Let's smash it open," she proposed. Mom plucked it from her paw and righted the centerpiece: "Let's not and say we did."

Explaining the Gourds, the band, is almost as deceptively complicated as justifying ornamental squash to a teenager. The average music fan, if they know the Austin quintet at all, think of them primarily as the alt-country act that repurposed "Ziggy Stardust" and "Gin and Juice" a few years back.

Now, Border Radio has long held the opinion that, aside from wedding bands, you shouldn't cover other people's songs unless you completely reinvent them. Which the Gourds certainly do. Their take on the David Bowie chestnut sounds like the boys slipped the glam anthem a couple roofies, keelhauled its ass through the Everglades, then left it to dry out on the porch of some backwater shack with a Dobro in its muddy mitts. And their version of "Gin and Juice" hews closer to the outré, explosive, backwater R&B of Swamp Dogg than anything by his tricked-out L.A. counterpart Snoop.

But Blood on the Ram, the Gourds' seventh full-length, offers a powerful reminder that this rowdy ensemble are just as tough to pigeonhole when peddling their own compositions. "Lower 48" prominently features accordion and fiddle--the arrangement suggests a zydeco band fattened on a diet of cough syrup, biscuits, and sausage gravy. The lyrics, meanwhile, rattle off all the states of the continental U.S. of A., without coming off like second-rate Gilbert and Sullivan. "Triple T Gas" boasts a jubilant ballpark organ and blistering, bluesy guitar, romping along like a collaboration between Nick Lowe and Creedence Clearwater Revival.

This superlative disc encompasses everything from hints of Irish country (is that a pennywhistle fluttering through "Arapaho"?) to the weird warbling of the singing saw. And the R&B groove of "Escalade" is so laidback, so reminiscent of vintage Al Green--right down to the falsetto vocals--that it takes a listen or two to pick out vitriolic lyrical swipes like "Even as society collapses/You got rose-colored glasses."

What the heck are the Gourds? The group that made one of the best damn albums of 2004, that's what. Check 'em out at one of their two Tractor gigs January 5 and 6 and decide for yourself. If you're still left scratching your noggin after the show… well, just be a good sport, and don't try to smash their heads open.

kurt@thestranger.com

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