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The Greencards – “Fascination” (Sugar Hill Records)

This is not your father’s bluegrass. Progressive isn’t a strong enough description for The Greencards: otherworldly is more suitable.

The trio at the core of this band consists of two Aussies and a Brit who originally met in Austin, Texas, but now call Nashville home. As for the band’s quirky name, I suppose Greencards sounds better than Permanent Residentcards. But after all, what’s in a name? Cleverness aside, it’s what they are, but what they are is so much more than resident aliens. The Greencards are definitely not a cute joke — they’re excellent musicians and songwriters, serious about their craft. This album marks a turning point in the development of a group that, five years on the scene, is taking chances and branching out.

With alternating pizzicato and swirling violin, masterful mandolin, insistent percussion and Carol Young’s deft bass lines that anchor her soaring vocals, you know this is something different: the music is simultaneously ancient and new. Throughout Fascination, Carol Young’s vocals carry the listener away on waves of longing, like a bluegrass torch singer. It’s the perfect soundtrack for a cold and gray winter’s day.

Joshua Gaylord speaks of fascination in his stunning debut novel, Hummingbirds: “Haven’t you ever been fascinated by someone? I don’t mean liking them, it doesn’t even have to do with liking or hating. I mean fascination — like everything they do seems to be a secret key to something important. You want to follow them everywhere because even … even what they order on their sandwich at the deli could be a clue to some treasure.”

That excerpt describes this album perfectly. There is something special here and you want to know more.

The opening track, “Fascination,” begins with expectant percussion sounding like the ticking of a clock. It comes creeping in on little bird feet demanding attention, and fades seamlessly into the next song, “Outskirts of Blue” with a more traditional sound, and a tempo like the beating of a human heart.

“The Avenue” is reminiscent of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” with the rhythm of a fast-paced walker. The urgency is palpable: “Walk on … The sound of music in my ears, been ringing out for two thousand years, through the avenue.”

Australians Carol Young (bass, mandolin, vocals) and Kym Warner (mandolins), and British violinist Eamon McLoughlin defy traditional bluegrass music (their inspiration) with percussion that sounds like a panting dog (“Chico Calling”) and abstract lyrics about dreaming someone awake.

Probably the most haunting and affecting tune is “Three Four Time,” featuring Carol’s hypnotic bass and blithe vocals, a stripped-down love song.

“Davey Jones” features evocative images of the mythical death-at-sea metaphor as told by a seagoing narrator who always knew he’d die at sea on a cold November day. It’s a fisherman’s last drowning thoughts: “I saw Davey Jones waving his black flag, countin’ up his bones.”

A welcome break from all this introspection about mysterious lovers and sea tragedies comes with “Little Siam,” the shortest cut on the album, but with the most impressive mandolin performance by Warner: it’s pure chili-dippin’ bliss. Likewise, “Rivertown” echoes an old Irish reel. “The Crystal Merchant”, a positively gorgeous instrumental, showcases the incredible talent these musicians possess.

Water as a classic literary symbol of death and rebirth is prevalent on this album, and were it not for Carol Young’s rapturous voice, so many introspective songs might be a bit of a downer. As it is, Fascination draws you in with tales of ancient lives, hope for the future and promises of secret treasures.

Find lyrics and many other offerings at The Greencards website.

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