Monday, May 9, 2011

New Release: Chris Thile & Michael Daves - Sleep With One Eye Open

Release Date: May 10, 2011
Label: Nonesuch

Here's a little preview into the future... It is May 9th, and I am listening to an album which does not come out until May 10th.  It's not time travel; for some reason, MOG already has it available to stream.

I decided I wanted to listen to this for a few reasons:

(a) I have a man crush on Chris Thile.  From Nickel Creek, to Punch Brothers, to his more traditional solo work, everything this guy is involved in is good.  Thile is known for his prowess on the mandolin, and his kinda-like-Thom-Yorke-but-less-harsh voice, but his most appealing attribute in my mind is his creativity (and his proclivity for performing bluegrass covers of Radiohead songs is pretty cool, too).  Punch Brothers is one of the most exciting bands around today.

(b) Chris Thile and Michael Daves have a Friday morning time slot on the main stage at Telluride next month.  I figure I ought to familiarize myself with their material, in order to make the show more enjoyable.

(c) I downloaded the free mp3 they offered a few weeks back of their rendition of "My Little Girl in Tennessee," and I quite liked it.

Before I heard the "Little Girl" mp3, I thought this would be a traditional bluegrass band, with a guitar, mandolin, bass, banjo, and maybe a fiddle.  Presumably, Thile and Daves would be the creative force, and hire studio musicians to play the other parts.  I noticed right away that the song is a true duet: it is no more than Thile on mandolin, Daves on guitar, and both singing harmony.  This immediately made the project a little more interesting to me.

A few songs in, I realized that, while this is stylistically similar to traditional bluegrass, there are a few elements that make this somewhat more interesting than your local bluegrass band.  First of all, the arrangements can be very chaotic.  I am more than a little impressed with Daves' guitar playing, and as much as I like Thile, I think the guitar work is what makes this work.  A few songs in, the playing reaches such a blistering pace that you think there's no way they'll be able to hold it together, but amazingly, they do.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have slow, peaceful songs like "Bury Me Beneath The Willow," with relatively sparse, and more disciplined, instrumentation.  Amazingly, at both ends of the spectrum, it doesn't feel like the instrumentation is lacking; the guitar and mandolin do a more than adequate job at creating a sound that is both melodic and percussive.

It should be noted that everything here is essentially a cover; several of the songs are traditional, and several more are originally written by Flatt, Scruggs, and Monroe, among others.  There are no originals; none of Thile's interesting prog-grass inventions.  Just two very talented musicians offering their own interpretations of old bluegrass and traditional standards.  It could be said that this allows them to focus more on the technical aspects of the music, and less on formulating lyrics and melodies.

Rabbit in the Log from Chris Thile & Michael Daves on Vimeo.

An album like this needs to be placed in its proper context to be really appreciated.  This album is not breaking any new ground; it's not a display of songwriting genius; it's virtually impossible to bond with this album on any emotional level.  Where this succeeds is as an exhibition of extraordinary guitar and mandolin technique, and perfectly matched vocal harmonies; and in that light, it is a lot of fun.  There is not a bad cut here (although 16 tracks may be a few too many).  I don't feel that, without it, my collection is lacking something, but I sure as heck enjoy listening to it.


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