The typical feature article on the Greencards leads with what an unlikely scenario it was for bluegrass-influenced Aussies (Carol Young and Kym Warner) and a Brit (Eamon McLoughlin) to find each other and form an acoustic trio in Austin, Texas, like they did. (They've since relocated to Nashville).
It's a true enough characterization, not to mention one emphasized by the band name. But, with Fascination—the Greencards' fourth album—they've entered a new era in which they're just as likely to be known for crossing musical borders as national ones. Say, between straightforward—albeit modern—takes on bluegrass, folk and country and something more like stylish, deconstructed alt-rock and pop played on acoustic instruments. Not that it's quite that cut-and-dried, but the difference is evident.
"A lot of people have said it's a departure, and I don't know if it's the right word," says Warner, who plays mandolin and its musical cousins, mandola and bouzouki, writes or co-writes songs and occasionally sings. (Young is lead vocalist and bassist and McLoughlin handles violin, viola and cello. Both also write.) "I think it's a progression of what we've started and where we're going.... We put in a lot of work and really pushed ourselves to come up with something different and unique but still Greencards."
Travel itself is part of the explanation Warner gives for the band's new direction: "The bluegrass thing came more natural for us, because we were around it so much. We played a lot of festivals, and that was sort of where the band had been. But in the last 12 or 18 months, we've found ourselves on a lot of different stages with a lot of different artists, and obviously that sort of rubs off on you and you find that you're listening to a lot of different things."
The Greencards did their stylistic exploration on a new label. The one that had released their last two albums and was, Warner says, encouraging them to head in a slightly more commercial direction.
"The way we looked at it was it would have been a massive risk of something that wasn't really where our heart was, and there's no guarantee that it's going to pay off," he says. "And then even if it does pay off, are you happy doing it anyway? I mean, we all left other jobs playing in bands...we've all played in bands that have been a lot more commercially viable or successful, but that's not where your heart is. And this band's never been about anything other than playing music where your heart is."
Warner is quick to qualify, "It was the most amicable departure you ever want to have from a record label. It really was. Still good friends with them, you know. Really good friends with them, which is rare."
Not by accident, the Greencards are now on a label that's been home to such expansive acoustic acts as Nickel Creek and The Duhks: Sugar Hill. The parallels to Nickel Creek are obvious—superficially (both trios are comprised of two guys and a girl) and sonically (both groups now seem to feel like the past 20 years of alt-rock and pop are fair game for musical inspiration, regardless of what instrument you hold in your hand).
It's hard to overestimate the importance of Warner's playing to the Greencards' new sound. During the title track, he plays a darting figure that anyone else might do on synth; then he switches to a ska-styled backbeat. Thanks to his driving, springy chording, the chorus of "The Avenue" comes off as practically power-pop. To the intro of "Chico Calling" he adds a circling, ethereal lick worthy of the Edge. Says Warner, "It would sound silly to have a real bluegrassy-style mandolin thing going on in the song if it just wasn't that way inclined."
On several tracks, Young, McLoughlin and Warner—with help from producer Jay Joyce, longtime collaborator Jedd Hughes and a couple of other musicians—create an effect not unlike a programmed loop, only without the programming.
"[Jay] created a loop by just playing this banjo riff.... We like to get that hypnotic sort of thing going where it's nothing really going on, but it keeps you in a trance, you know. And that's what a loop does, doesn't it? It just has that thing [that's] sort of repetitious, but keeps you in that moment."
The Greencards paid more attention to ambiance on Fascination than on any of their previous albums, whether they did it through creating interesting rhythmic beds or other ways, like "bleeding a song into another song. Which we hadn't done before."
That's exactly the point.
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