If there’s an upside to The Gourds‘ recent breakup/hiatus — their final public show was on October 27, 2013 — it would be the emergence of The Hard Pans. The HPs feature Jimmy Smith and Claude Bernard from the Gourdian knot and Mark Creaney, the band’s soundman from 2008-13. They’ve recently added new drummer, George Duron, but their new album, Budget Cuts, was recorded well before he came on board. In fact, one of the unexpected high points of the album is the fact that Jimmy not only plays bass, but drums. While it’s strange not hearing his inventive basslines complemented by Keith Langford’s Levon Helm-esque pocket, if there’s another musician who intuitively knows Jimmy Smith the bassist, it’s Jimmy Smith the drummer.
Where Kevin Russell could play it big and project to the back of the room, The Hard Pans get small. But, that’s a good thing and plays to the band’s strengths. I’m not sure Jimmy knows how to write a conventional pop song, but commandeering earworms has never been an issue for him, so who gives a shit about pro forma pop? Claude has a good ear for melody, which shouldn’t be surprising given that he’s the keyboard player. Creaney splits the diff. He’s got Smith’s gift for groove and 1-2 chord drone, but “Dying Trying” is a flat-out great pop song. What I like about Budget Cuts is that the twisted folkie element of The Gourds is still there, but this is definitely an Austin indie rock album. Angular and idiosyncratic, cleverly melodic, with a good variation in dynamics and styles, and overlaid with the brilliant feral cat poetry we’ve come to expect from Jimmy Smith.
Hard Pans – Mount Bullshit
“Mount Bullshit” is the only track on Budget Cuts to have an out-and-out R&B flavor, with Jimmy’s bass and Kullen Fuchs‘ staccato trumpet riffs straight out of the James Brown Primordial Funk Textbook. Smith’s bass, in particular, serves the arrangement in a way not dissimilar to Bernard Odum on “Cold Sweat” or Tim Drummond on “I Can’t Stand Myself.” Hit the one, walk all over the damn place, and subtly carry the melody (in this case in harmony with his own vocals). It’s worth noting that while “Bullshit” is unique to Budget Cuts, Jimmy Smith has been throwing down funky, swinging basslines for years, as those of us who’ve heard “LGO,” “The Bridge,” and “Escalade” can attest.
“Mount Bullshit” also traverses the elusive punk/funk gap. Few bands in the last 25-30 years have successfully navigated this genre fusion because the slope hasn’t been slippery, so much as chili peppery. In my opinion, the golden era of punk/funk was the late ’70s through the mid-’80s, when The Big Boys, Gang Of Four, and Minutemen ruled that roost before the fratboy party down slap bass prototype took hold. “Bullshit” exists on that continuum, though it’s obviously not as brazenly punk as its antecedents. That said, Creaney’s guitar solo from 1:52-2:20 is pure D. Boon, that similar dry, biting tone used to perfection throughout Double Nickels On The Dime. And that’s why God invented the Telecaster.
The Hard Pans are obviously helped by Smith and Bernard providing built-in context and infrastructure. A pair of Gourds playing music not TOO dissimilar from The Gourds means that the transition to Hard Pan is fairly seamless. Of course, the familiarity of the ex-Gourds means that, by definition, Creaney is the X factor, and in a fundamental way, he’s inverted the Gourd dynamic. A big part of what made the Gourds work was the contrast between Kevin Russell and Jimmy Smith. If anything, Creaney is a shadow Jimmy. His phrasing, timbre, and lyrical sensibility are rooted in similar terrain, so there’s a close harmony appeal to their singing AND songwriting. It’s a wonderful effect and I believe there are moments where the student has equaled (and possibly surpassed) the master.
Hard Pans – What’s Coming
This might be my favorite song on Budget Cuts. It certainly contains my favorite lyrics, a thoughtful meditation on social collapse and ecological comeuppance that concludes with this statement of non-purpose:
“Forget about the doomsday scenario
Let’s throw back a beer and crank up the stereo
Out in the barrio
In the dying city slums and the trailer park ghettos”
A brilliant encapsulation of fuckitology, “What’s Coming” feels like an answer/sequel to Jimmy’s underrated gem from Old Mad Joy, “Marginalized.” Claude actually performs a similar function in both songs. He provides the soulful organ line hovering over the yolocaust. Love the acoustic guitar fingerpicking contrasted against the reverby electric guitar (2:02-2:46), which was apparently filtered through the “Octopus’ Garden” foot pedal. Jimmy’s vocal harmony in the chorus is understated and blends in nicely behind Creaney, because remember what I said about his shadow Smithery? That works here, but in reverse.
Hard Pans – Where’s The Pub?
This is the band’s new video. Bernard’s psychotropic think piece dares address the homeless problem in America and uses Dylan‘s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” as a thematic reference point. Kidding! It’s about wanting to get drunk and love on the ladies, is that so wrong? FYI, the guy passed out at the start of the clip is George Duron, the new drummer, brought into the fold because it’s hard for Jimmy to play bass and drums simultaneously without it looking gimmicky. My two favorite parts of the “Pub” video are Claude’s doughnut spit take and his playing dead at the end. Or was he playing??? Maybe he’s really dead. That’s how convincing his performance was.
Those of you wishing to catch The Hard Pans in concert will probably have to visit Austin, but there’s talk that they’re securing an August residency at the Mos Eisley Cantina. Keep your pans hard and your fingers crossed!