"Blood of the Ram"
SPLIT LIP RAYFIELD
"Should Have Seen It Coming"
When Uncle Tupelo splintered in the early '90s, Max Johnston, the one member of the pioneering alt-country band who had actual country-music chops, joined three of his bandmates in Wilco. But as it became obvious that Wilco wasn't very interested in country, Johnston packed up his fiddle, banjo and lap steel and in 1999, joined the Gourds, an Austin band that still had a healthy dose of hillbilly music in its energetic, jokey, sloppy, singalong rock 'n' roll.
The Gourds' new album, "Blood of the Ram," deserves all those adjectives. Johnston's string instruments and Claude Bernard's accordion give the songs a rootsy, Americana feel, embracing everything from honky-tonk to Cajun to gospel soul, and the songs by guitarist Kev Russell and bassist Jimmy Smith serve up tall tales from the red states along the Gulf Coast.
The vocals are as raggedy as the songwriting, but it's hard to resist the contagious good time that the band seems to be having on every song. It's telling that the most memorable song, "Cracklins," is a shaggy-dog story that climaxes in a flatulence joke, but surely there's room for that, too, in today's pop music.
The alt-country cause is also carried forward by Split Lip Rayfield, a Kansas quartet whose instrumentation resembles a bluegrass band. Of course, most bluegrass bands don't use a one-string bass with a Ford gas tank for its body and don't perform songs with titles like "C'mon Get Your Gun" and "A Little More Cocaine Please." Both of these tunes are on SLR's fourth album, "Should Have Seen It Coming," which adapts the Gourds' irreverence with less boogie and more craft.
SLR's all-acoustic picking is not virtuosic in the bluegrass sense, but it does combine clean, inventive parts with a rock 'n' roll oomph. The craft is also evident in the songwriting by mandolinist Wayne Gottstine and guitarist Kirk Rundstrom, who balance their tongue-in-cheek numbers with impressive, straightforward country songs such as "Hundred Dollar Bill" and "Promise Not to Tell." The album's final number is the satirical "Just Like a Gillian Welch Song," but several other songs could have worn that title legitimately.
-- Geoffrey Himes
Appearing Saturday at the Birchmere. * To hear a free Sound Bite from the Gourds, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8124; to hear Split Lip Rayfield, press 8125. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)