Music is a change-or-die situation. South Austin Jug Band has kept this in mind on Strange Invitation, the trio’s third release. After winning three Austin Awards as best bluegrass band, the musicians are moving out of their string-picking comfort zone and into the realm of alt-country. They blur musical definition over the album’s eleven songs, utilizing their bluegrass chops to create an intimate collection of songs that are at once traditional and current.
Strange Invitation takes its name from a line in Beck’s “Jack-Ass,” and the band’s cover of the song sums up much of its charm. James Hyland, Brian Beken, and Dennis Ludiker, the three permanent members of the band, use the bluegrass instruments to reimagine the original version. Ludiker’s mandolin cuts through the shininess of the bells and combines with Hyland’s vocal to offer a fresh perspective on a familiar song.
The musicians use a similar approach on their original material. Though there are aspects of their bluesgrass roots throughout the album, they make a conscious effort to expand their sound. This is apparent from the drum crack in the opening seconds of “Come to Me” and the heavy bass of “Dive Bar,” which instantly makes the mandolin and fiddle more accessible to listeners with an ear for pop music. The trio continues this on “Falls So Fast,” the album’s second track. The song’s poppy lyrics are given weight by the complex instrumentation and playing, which in turn is buoyed by Hyland’s ear for a listenable melody.
Strange Invitation deftly bridges the genres of alt-country and bluegrass, giving listeners in each genre a stepping-stone in the other direction. Perhaps even more important is that it shows the South Austin Jug Band is a willing to break new ground to maintain their creative edge.