Since American bluegrass debuted in the first half of the 20th Century, acoustic music revivals have happened so frequently that it’s difficult to even consider them comebacks; the various subgenres have never gone away.
Most recently, the popularity of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and the Robert Plant and Alison Krauss collaboration, Raising Sand, have helped raise the profile of bluegrass and its cousins, shining a light on everyone from Dr. Ralph Stanley to jam-grassers like Yonder Mountain String Band.
Where to place The Greencards in this universe is challenging. In fact, it’s easier to determine what the Nashville-via-Austin-via-England-and-Australia trio is not, which is traditional bluegrass or country. Fascination, the band’s fourth album and follow-up to 2007’s Viridian, which reached the peak of the Billboard U.S. Top Bluegrass chart, is a brilliantly produced and arranged collection of tight, heartfelt acoustic songs. It’s also an album with crossover potential, but not so much crossover potential as to alienate traditionalists — not that The Greencards have been trying to please traditionalists with their decidedly progressive approach to old-timey music over the years.
The star of Fascination is Kym Warner and his mandolin, which he uses alternately for a lead instrument, rhythmic ballast and coloring. The two tracks that finish the album are fine examples. On “The Crystal Merchant”, an instrumental, Warner tightly plucks the mandolin, and on the ballad “Lover I Love the Most”, he buttresses Eamon McLoughlin’s delicate violin leads with spindly strings. They are also two of the best songs on Fascination, with Carol Young’s pitch-perfect, understated vocals at their best on the latter.
Young’s voice is not particularly mellifluous. At its most aggressive, it is nasally. It’s a double-edged sword, as it helps form The Greencards’ signature but also makes much of the band’s music an acquired taste. The Greencards, though, are not a vocally driven band, so a listener’s affinity for, or lack thereof, Young’s vocals is not necessarily a deal maker or breaker. The title track, which opens the album, finds Young in an r&b-tinged voice, following a quirky yet linear melody. Mandolin trills rise as the rhythm drops out, giving way to handclaps. The second verse is more proactive, with some tasty McLoughlin violin slides.
The Greencards do well with ballads, like “Lover I Love the Most” and “Outskirts of Blue,” a richly textured selection. And the midtempo “Chico Calling” is driving, strong and layered. The progressive side of the band, apparent always, is most prominent on the instrumental tracks (“Little Siam” and “The Crystal Merchant”) as well as on “Davey Jones”, a moody, atmospheric piece which bears little resemblance to the band’s modern acoustic-music peers. “Water in the Well,” meanwhile, is comparable to another maverick acoustic (at the time) outfit, the Grateful Dead, especially its quietly intense moments in “Rosemary” and “Mountains of the Moon”. “Water in the Well” is melancholic and slow, demanding the listener’s full attention. Its lyrics have a spiritual component, with Young singing, “You’ll find water in the well / When all hope is lost / And your tears are all gone / You’ll find water in the well.”
Like most authentic country bands today, The Greencards are outsiders, which suits their mongrel makeup (McLoughlin is British, and Young and Warner are Australian) as well as their spunk. That approach is a freeing one, allowing the band to tour with the likes of Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, where it can further develop its fanbase in a welcoming, relatively open-minded environment.