The Greencards (from left: Carl Miner, Tyler Andal, Carol Young, Kym Warner: the music is a bit more out there, and more challenging, probably for the musicians but most assuredly for the listener.
On An Exalted Plateau
The Greencards’ new album is a stunner
By David McGee
THE BRICK ALBUM
Darling Street Records
Clearly on the upward arc of their career, Australia’s Greencards follow their solid 2009 Fascination long player with a new variation on the band’s formula bluegrass-folk-country hybrid (basically falling under the rubric “newgrass”), with two new members (fiddler Tyler Andal and guitarist Carl Miner) joining mainstays Carol Young (bass, lead vocals) and mandolinist extraordinaire Kim Warner (the only remaining native Aussies in the lineup). The personnel change seems to have been seamless, with the band moving forward from where Fascination left off, more mellow, perhaps, but deeper too. If there were such a thing as newgrass art songs, The Brick Album would be an example of the style at its apex. Over a decidedly subdued backdrop, the various tunes—not all, but enough to make an impression—play out with precision and an intense focus on the unity of music and lyric. The early Greencards, though always rootsy, were practically a rock ‘n’ roll band with furious energy and a freewheeling attitude (especially on stage, but it came through on record too, if not always consistently). Not sure if those Greencards would ever have attempted an exercise as ethereal as this album’s “Mrs. Madness,” a Kym Warner tune with Impressionistic aspirations in the rippling, moody mandolin lines weaving in and out of the melody, the restrained but keening fiddle moaning along in sympathy, and Young singing distractedly, wearily in summoning chaos to the table, until it all collapses in a sighing “oh, whoa, oh…” That’s one example of the growth evident here: the music is a bit more out there, and more challenging, surely for the musicians but most assuredly for the listener.
The Greencards, ‘Make It Out West,’ the first song on The Brick Album
The album begins, oddly, with a jittery, anxious road song, “Make It Out West,” with Sam Bush adding some sizzle on slide mandolin and Andal introducing himself to Greencards fans with some fiery fiddling to match Bush’s heat. Why is this number odd? Because “Make It Out West” sounds like a blatant ripoff of the Duhks’ “95 South” from that sorely missed band’s magnificent Fast Paced World album. (Come back, Leonard! Come back, Sarah!) “Make It Out West” seems like an anomaly on The Brick Wall; the action really begins with the second number, “Faded,” an aching, bittersweet love song with a pronounced rhythmic thrust fueled by Miner’s sturdy guitar strumming and Andal’s weeping fiddle cries as Young and Warner harmonize with tender but palpable urgency, addressing a reluctant lover while at the same time wishing for his/her comfort. This if the first of several songs here (including “Make It Out West”) in which the main protagonist is perfectly willing to carry on alone when a significant other is wavering, content with beautiful memories of a fruitful romance—at least for awhile. Things get more complicated as this trip unfolds.
If you’re going to be as precise as the Greencards are here, you could hardly do worse than to bring in Vince Gill, who is nothing if not precise vocally and instrumentally, he being a Chet Atkins acolyte. Gill joins voices with Young on "Heart Fixer," a pulsating, southwestern-flavored love ballad (it features a fleeting gut-string guitar solo reminiscent of Grady Martin’s classic flights on Marty Robbins’s “El Paso”), a Warner-Young co-write notable for being irresistibly catchy on all fronts--in its rhythmic drive, in its energetic music, in the singers’ visceral expressions of affection for each other. “Here Lies John,” certainly a bittersweet kissoff, thumps, stomps and charges relentlessly to its conclusion, with Andal leading the way at every critical passage, starting with his chopping fiddle spurts that mutate into quivering, anxious passages before shape shifting again into affecting long lines in a flurry of captivating textural shifts supporting Young’s whispery, schoolgirl vocal on a track reminiscent of something born of England’s mid-‘80s twee pop movement. A tale of romantic disconnect so profound as to be interstellar, the mesmerizing “Girl In the Telescope” lifts off and floats free of the earth in all its haunting, swirling beauty. The first lyric, fittingly, is “I’ll fly away...,” rendered by Young so dreamily she sounds like she’s already aloft; eventually words fail her and she’s reduced to a cosmic howl; as she articulates her inchoate anguish, Warner saunters in with his own gritty, wounded observation: “There’s no gravity where you are/‘cause you’re always chasing stars.” (In the song’s one moment of levity, he later laments: “I’m a lover with a bad review.”) This is not an album replete with weird songs—challenging, as noted above, yes; but “Girl In the Telescope” is a weird song.
Vintage Greencards, ‘Time,’ from the group’s 2005 album, Weather and Water
Right smack in the middle of the tunestack is a cheery, mountain-style instrumental, “Adelaide,” a nod to the Aussies’ homeland, featuring sprightly, lyrical dialogues between mandolin, fiddle and guitar, clear and bubbly as a mountain stream and lovingly evoking an intense, enduring love of wide open spaces. Separating an ambitious two-part finale is a low-key heartbreaker, “Loving You Is The Only Way To Fly,” a Jedd Hughes-Rodney Crowell-Sarah Buxton co-write in which Young, a palpable ache in her winsome voice, hopes, presumably against hope, for her lover’s return to the fold to embrace the passion she retains for him. Preceding and following this comes the album’s most ambitious tune, “Tale of KangaRio.” Its first passage, at 3:33, is a mandolin and guitar instrumental with a Bossa Nova feel, lighthearted and buoyant; the album closes with a near-eight-minute reprise of “KangaRio” announced by the main theme of part one but this time fashioned slowly, deliberately, poignantly—a dirge; at the 1:10 mark silence ensues for thirty seconds before the music returns in strikingly different fashion—the song is now a backwoods heartbreaker with bluegrass gospel overtones and nods to the Carter Family in its narrator’s repeated lyrical yearning to be buried “under the weeping willow tree.” The story centers on a woman’s despair over being left at the altar, and suggests she’s contemplating suicide as a way out of her pain and as a means to sear her betrothed’s unfaithful heart (expressed conditionally—“perhaps he’ll weep for me…”), with Young’s cool, unruffled singing chillingly implying her demise is inevitable. The song concludes with more than a minute of ensemble instrumental work, the keening fiddle and unadorned mandolin, so delicately picked sans embroidery, sounding the coda to an epic tragedy. There was no way to see this coming from whence we started the journey, long ago on “Make It Out West.” This moment takes your breath away, leaves you dumbfounded, if not awestruck, by the rich experience the music offers. Welcome to the new Greencards, better than the old Greencards, working on an exalted plateau. The Brick Album is a complete stunner.
(Note: the cover illustration of a brick wall shows a name on each of its bricks. These names identify the fans that contributed towards helping the Greencards finance the album, the first release on the band’s own label.)