Monday, August 10, 2009

The Greencards - Fascination

You may not know this about me, but I love bluegrass music. I play the mandolin, and I was basically raised on the stuff. Well, like any other genre of music you have the traditional on one hand and the groundbreaking on the other. Bluegrass has always been stuck in the past, some would say, and for the most part I agree; there's too large a constituent of genre fans still clamoring for the same exact Bill Monroe sound, fifty years after its heyday. But there are alternatives. Newgrass Revival started bringing rock and jazz elements into the genre in the seventies. Chris Thile and Nickel Creek brought bluegrass into the pop/country and, later, alternative segments. Bela Fleck has, through utter mastery of the banjo, created a subgenre of intelligent, aware, new acoustic jazz.

Despite this, bluegrass seems destined, and content, to stay obscure. As the audience ages and shrinks, the relatively small and feeble bluegrass-focused record companies are becoming less and less willing to take risks, leading to streams of well-meaning but derivative bands that can't hope to expand their demographics. It's incredibly frustrating, as a musician, to see this vicious circle play out.

But there is an alternative: The Greencards, a group of young, virtuosic artists taking the bluegrass world by storm. The Greencards have completed their transformation from envelope-pushing traditionalists in their sophomore project, Weather and Water, to groundbreaking acoustic alternative rockers with this fourth project, Fascination. Made up of mandolin, violin, and electric bass, the trio can still claim their folk moniker, lacking drums, but are otherwise left free to experiment. Where other bluegrass bands would most likely fall back into traditional mores, The Greencards all but eschew the genre's overused chord progressions, soloing conventions, and melodies, instead developing a more modern sensibility.

The group hasn't left behind everything, however. Bluegrass has always required a high degree of musicianship, mostly owing to the hurtling speeds at which some songs are played and the skill to play with many different musical instruments in one ensemble coherently. As if it weren't already evident from seeing one of their shows, I've gotten the opportunity to jam with these guys (or "have a pick", as they call it), and I was totally awed by their mad skillz.

With Fascination, The Greencards have become what I hoped they would be from the beginning: a band incorporating bluegrass instruments to stray past the boundaries of the traditional music those elements have been mired in, but doing so in such a way as to garner merit in their own right. The album is by no means perfect, but if songs like "Davey Jones" and "Fascination" are any indication, the group is straying into very delicious territory. Carol Young's vocals are extremely potent, channeling equal parts Krauss and Krall in some instances. The songs just feel new, which is more than I can say for a lot of bands.

Perhaps bluegrass will never "break out" in the pop field, but The Greencards have proven that, at least musically, it already has.

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