Matt Jagow is feeling good about the prospects for his Evergreen Grass Band's much-delayed sophomore album, although that wasn't always the case. The non-traditional string quartet's already recorded it twice before.
First the mandolin player left and needed to be replaced; remaining members scrapped those sessions. The second attempt was recorded in Bon Iver's April Base studio in the band's native Wisconsin, but the external drive containing the finished tracks was stolen. That was 16 months ago.
"We have enough material for 2½ full-length albums," says Jagow, lamenting the delay. "It is what it is. But we'll have something out this year. We just have our fingers crossed that some act of God won't destroy our plans again."
The band formed six years ago around a steady open-mic-hosting gig, and soon started touring locally, then regionally. The group released its debut, For Sheriff, in 2010. Originally a jam band, Evergreen soon found itself wandering off the trail. The dialect may be bluegrass, but the language is fluent in varied rock and pop idioms.
"The instruments that we play kind of pigeonhole you into bluegrass, but we like to play whatever kind of music we like, and all of us grew up listening to such different things," Jagow explains. "We take a little from each."
Though it's still recording an official follow-up, the band has posted some interim tracks on its site. One of the best is "Lightshow," whose dark, hot-footed kick evokes the gypsy rock of Gogol Bordello. Its lilting vocal melody suggests a college rock song, while dueling banjo and mandolin race each other through the break.
Other interesting previews include the Celtic-tinged "Intricate Illusion" and the delicious, minor-key harmonica-driven instrumental "Flies," which shoehorns jazzy Tom Waits-ian gutter blues into a backwoods bramble.
Nor is the experimentation limited to originals. Evergreen Grass Band has a long list of playful covers. It's a penchant that goes back to an annual festival in Eau Claire called Decadent Cabaret, where people dress in bondage gear and local bands play 25-minute sets designed to subvert expectations.
"The first time, we played a five-song Guns 'N Roses set, and the second year we did Smashing Pumpkins," Jagow says. "After the first time we did it, we were like, 'If we can pull this off, we can pull off anything. What songs do you guys like? Let's take this as far as we can go!
"The craziest one has been Toto's 'Africa,' but we're working that out of the rotation because we've played it a billion times and it's getting kind of old," he continues. "But I'm sure we'll find something just as ridiculous.")