One of the reasons I love bluegrass so much is because it is accessible. Artfully, deftly and masterfully played by virtuosi who weave together pieces of melody, lyric, rhythm, harmony, instrument and arrangement together like spinning straw into gold, the music is nevertheless simple, as old and wise as a dear grandfather who helps us make our paths straight. It’s the simplicity that makes the music sharable, an experience more than merely a sound that gets straight to our hearts and lingers there. Even progressive forms of the genre don’t stray from the core values of the familiar rhythms and sounds we all love so much.
It’s with this understanding, then, that I came to hear the new Milkdrive release, Waves. A four-piece act out of Austin made up of Noah Jeffries on guitar and harmony vocals, Dennis Ludiker on mandolin and harmony vocals, Brian Beken on fiddle and lead vocals and Matt Mefford on the double bass, Milkdrive has been on the scene for a little over three years. Produced by Bil Vorndick, who’s worked with Béla Fleck and Alison Krauss, Waves is the group’s second studio album. Six of the ten cuts are written by the band, most notably Beken. You’ll also find guest spots from Noam Pikelny from The Punch Brothers and Futureman from Bela Fleck & the Flecktones.
Waves is hard to describe. It’s not a straight-ahead bluegrass album, by any means. Milkdrive calls itself a “jazz-grass” band. They’ve been labeled “jamgrass,” “nu-folk” and “redneck gypsy jazz,” among other titles. But labels can get us into trouble sometimes. Certainly, we use them to help us define and make choices about our music, and they are important in helping us understand what we are hearing. But do abstract descriptions and colorful phrases really help us comprehend Milkdrive in a way that makes me want to know more about them? I’m not sure. Sometimes, I think it may be better to leave the labels out of the equation, and just listen. Hearing Waves may be one of those times.
Among the highlights: the sharp, clipped fiddle of Papers on the Table kicks off the record with the expectation and drive of an action movie soundtrack. Run and Hide brings to mind vocal echoes of Don Henley, with harmonies reminiscent of The Eagles. Dear Prudence is an unexpected surprise, because it didn’t sound like a Beatles cover from The White Album as much as if it had originally been recorded with John Lennon playing a mandolin and Paul McCartney a banjo. Very interesting.
Among the instrumentals, Benny’s Bus stops by long enough to take the listener on a playful ride of banjo and guitar exchange that’s quite impressive, while you can almost see Gargamel’s Cat enjoying a fiddle romp through the grass, chasing butterflies. There are also a couple of traditional-sounding songs here; Gulf Road and Leavin’ make sure that the album has something for every bluegrass fan.
Waves is a nice, low-key listen, especially if you are of the progressive, “jazz-grass” inclination, although to me it carries more of a folk appeal than jazz. There are plenty of intricate instrumentals to satisfy the technical enthusiasts while offering nice melodies and harmonies for the more soulful fans.
Millkdrive is spending the touring season mostly on the road in the West and Midwest. They will be in Nashville in September to perform an official showcase at the IBMA’s World of Bluegrass event.
Check it out! www.milkdrive.com.