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From Milk Drive, quality comes through in 'Waves'

'Jazzgrass' quartet's CD features sharp originals and solid covers, including the Beatles' ‘Dear Prudence'

Brian T. Atkinson

Milk Drive's elegant "Waves" boosts sharp (the title track) and sophisticated originals ("Tom's Ranch") with innovative covers (The Beatles' "Dear Prudence"). The local "jazzgrass" quartet supports its adventurous new collection Friday at the Cactus Café.

"I'm excited," says lead singer and fiddler Brian Beken. "I just love playing at the Cactus. A good crowd can make a world of difference for this band; it's an electric feeling to be onstage at the Cactus."

American-Statesman: Explain how the new album took shape.

Brian Beken: It just came time for us to be playing some new songs. I started writing and (mandolin player) Dennis (Ludiker) started writing and we borrowed a couple songs from our friends Drew Smith ("Papers on the Table") and Bruce Robison ("Leavin' ").

How have you evolved as a songwriter since (last year's debut) "Road From Home"?

On our first record, I had only written one of the songs. I just practiced songwriting and got more confident and started keeping some of the ideas and presenting them to the band. (On the new album), I wrote "Waves," "Run & Hide" and "The City" and helped out with the instrumentals. A big catalyst was getting those guys involved in some of my preliminary ideas for songs. Having the confidence made things go smoother.

Tell the story behind writing the title track.

"Waves" is a song about my journey with songwriting. I live in an apartment downtown, (and) there's a road right outside that's really, really busy. When my girlfriend and I moved into this place, she was like, "That road out there is really noisy." I was like, "Well, if you think about it, it almost sounds like waves crashing on a shore." She's like, "That's a funny way of thinking of that." I just took an abstract idea like that and made a personal journal entry.

Did you immediately know ‘Tom's Ranch' would remain an instrumental?

(He laughs.) Man, we had a big enough handful with that song the way that it was! Lyrics never entered our minds in that one.

Was it intimidating to cover a Beatles song?

(He laughs.) We've always wanted to do a Beatles song, but, like you say, it can be very intimidating. What song are you gonna do? How are you gonna do it? I was driving to a rehearsal one day listening to KUT and (heard) a jazz pianist named Brad Mehldau's instrumental version of "Dear Prudence." When I got there, we looked it up online and everyone was into it. We decided to steal his groove and arrange it ourselves with the Beatles' words.

Describe working with (Punch Brothers banjoist) Noam Pikelny (‘Benny's Bus').

We've hung out with him at various festivals and jammed and he's obviously an excellent musician. He's a really cool hang, too. Noam actually played on that track a couple months after we had recorded it. We just left holes.

Both your bands balance tradition and innovation. Are you conscious of that?

We don't really pay too much attention to trying to stay traditional. Everyone else has that same kind of background. (Guitarist) Noah (Jeffries)'s family was a gospel bluegrass band. Dennis grew up listening to all the traditional bluegrass. But I don't think we're concerned about that so much as we happen to be using traditional instruments to make whatever music we want.

Milk Drive CD release show