The Brick Album
[Darling Street Records (2011)]
The Grownup Noise
This Time with Feeling
At Gruene Hall in New Braunfels, Texas in summer 2002, I saw Bill Chambers play with a pair of backup musicians on bass and mandolin who said they’d recently moved to the Austin area from Australia. The Greencards insist in their bio that the band was formed in 2003, but Bill Chambers definitely referred to them by that name when he introduced them. I was impressed enough with their playing and singing that I decided to chat with them between sets rather than saying hello to the much more well-known father of Kasey Chambers. They told me they had a show in the little college town of San Marcos just a little further north the next weekend, so I made my way up from the west side of San Antonio When I arrived at the bar, I got carded and told to that I couldn’t go in because I wasn’t twenty-one.
My twenty-first birthday was the next day. If I’d known at the time that The Greencards were this good, I would have waited outside until midnight.
The Brick Album sees founding members Kym Warner and Carol Young joined by a dozen guests, including Sam Bush firing off the opening salvo of slide mandolin on “Make It out West” and Vince Gill providing harmonies on the acoustic pop song “Heart Fixer.” Though not the most challenging or exciting track, “Heart Fixer” is a decent representation of the songcraft on the album:
There’s really no point in calling this bluegrass or newgrass; it’s not exactly down-to-earth, gritty, or bluesy, and it bears very little resemblance even to the pop bluegrass and acoustic cosmopolitan country of Alison Krauss and Union Station. Everything here sounds too modern for those descriptors. The first instrumental, “Adelaide,” is closer to the Celtic music being developed in Boston by artists like Crooked Still than something out of the Smokey Mountains; the next instrumental “Tale of Kangario,” incorporates jazz and classical—and has no trace of mountain music at all. If they lived in Portland instead of Nashville, you might expect to hear the music played on glockenspiels and cellos instead of mandolins and upright basses, drum kits instead of light percussion, anthemic guitar solos instead of Tyler Andal’s fiddle. More telling is the two “missing” instruments: banjo and steel guitar. The whole disc is more similar to what Nickle Creek hinted at when they added mandolin cheer to Pavement’s “Spit on a Stranger” and apathy to “The House Carpenter,” a mix of the colors of pop, alternative and indie rock, and folk traditions, and using the players’ unrelentingly virtuostic musical skills in a way that doesn’t overpower the essential vulnerability and charm of the songs.
A potential classic, The Brick album is a step forward for both The Greencards and acoustic music as a whole.
Taking a different track on the pop/folk continuum—playing something sometimes called “power folk”—is The Grownup Noise on This Time with Feeling. The quintet’s sound incorporates power pop, nouveau baroque chamber folk, and modern singer-songwriter fare from artists like Deathcab for Cutie (two whom the vocals here owe a significant debt) into a piano-, guitar-, and cello-driven indie framework. The band’s previous claims to some Americana territory have mostly been ceded on this disc, and the “folk” in “power folk” has been limited mostly to the narrative lyrical influences on songs like “Carvival” with lines like:
Bulls eye memory, they met once in Tel Aviv
The politics were obvious
She the rock, he Sisyphus
The real standout on the record is “Attention,” a hand-clapping, rollicking tune of gang vocals, horns, black humor. It’s the disc’s most genuine and joyful celebration of twenty-something honesty about that’s really important at that time in one’s life:
oh it’s a shame to admit but we all just wish to die young
well attention’s all that I want someone who will laugh and cheer me on this time you know I’m kicking your chair and tugging on to your arm listen look at me now
one second it feels like a whole hour
A handful of other glorious wordplay-packed lines—like “the sound/the sound of screwing around” and “well it sure felt good to play dumb/like pleading the fifth four three to one”—help make this one of my favorite songs of the year so far.
The catchy melodies might be what first drew me into This Time with Feeling, but The Grownup Noise’s talent with their lyrics is what put this back into my CD player a dozen times since its release.
—Jon Patton (Baltimore, MD)