The head, the heart, the gut—everything needs to be neutralized. If I’m sitting there and I’m moving, it’s a great feat. But if my mind is bored, I’ll rip it to shreds. If my mind is engaged and my body isn’t moving, then, what’s the point in that?
Though Thile’s career took off as a result of his work in Nickel Creek, one of contemporary newgrass’ most accessible groups (the trio’s debut was just recently certified platinum), over time he has gained a reputation for exceptionally esoteric music. The centerpiece of the first Punch Brothers album, “The Blind Leaving the Blind”, is a 40-minute string quartet for bluegrass instruments, which finds the talented group weaving in and out of classical, jazz, bluegrass, and gospel influences with a dexterity that very few musicians can claim. It’s a piece that’s jaw-dropping in its complexity, yes, but it’s also high-minded to the point of isolating many of Thile’s fans. In the 2012 documentary How to Grow a Band, which documents the formation of Punch Brothers and the creation of “The Blind Leaving the Blind”, Irish audiences publicly booed the band for one of the piece’s earliest performances.
Those audiences put off by the intricacies of “The Blind Leaving the Blind” would probably find Thile’s recurring work with double bass legend Edgar Meyer similarly distancing. Both Meyer and Thile are recipients of the MacArthur “Genius” Grant (the former in 2002, the latter in 2012), a staggering sum of $500,000 US that has enabled both men to further pursue their musical ingenuity in stunning and at times perplexing ways. Their first collaboration is on 2008’s Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile, a daunting set of tunes that finds the two balancing fascinating rhythmic experimentation and virtuosic speed on their instruments. The two then teamed up with fiddle player Stuart Duncan and cello luminary Yo-Yo Ma for 2012’s The Goat Rodeo Sessions, a slightly less cerebral album that similarly brings together the freewheeling quality of bluegrass performance with the high-mindedness of classical music.
With the straightforwardly-titled Bass and Mandolin, Meyer and Thile are back at their dumbfounding ways, putting out a set of 10 songs that highlight just how rare their talents are on their instruments. The juxtaposition between these two men’s instruments of choice is an obviously tantalizing one from the perspective of composition: the mandolin is a small, charming instrument on the high end of the register, while the double bass is a big, booming thing that, unlike the fast leads of the mandolin, usually falls into the role of keeping the rhythm. “The bass is not fundamentally a melody instrument, even though I do like to make it one,” Meyer said in an interview during the time of The Goat Rodeo Sessions. Meyer’s achievements on his instrument need no further expounding upon, and Bass and Mandolin finds him once again expanding the capabilities of the double bass. The only person in mainstream music circles to elevate the bass as a multifaceted lead instrument to somewhat similar levels is Les Claypool (though, of course, Meyer’s sensibilities in terms of presentation differ greatly from “Jerry Was a Racecar Driver”).
“Tarnation”, Bass and Mandolin’s lead single, is a dazzling example of this. Using the push-and-pull rhythm of a start/stop riff as an anchor, Meyer and Thile trade off rhythmic duties as each runs their fingers up and down their instrument’s fingerboards at a breakneck pace. The deep tones of Meyer’s bass hearken to its typical role as a rhythmic backbone, but he can so easily give it the feel of a lead instrument in the drop of a hat. (When he does take on a more basic rhythmic role, though, he is equally impressive; see the strut of “Big Top”). The same happens on the graceful “El Cinco Real”, where Thile switches out his mandolin for a guitar; his gentle strums match the bowed notes on the bass. So much of Bass and Mandolin succeeds for this reason: having effectively reinvented the wheel as far as their respective instruments are concerned, Meyer and Thile know just how to play off each other.
However, there are some things even genius musicians are bound to struggle with, and in the case of this album it’s finding the balance between the cerebral and the visceral; or, to use Thile’s words, “the head and the heart.” “Tarnation” succeeds because its main motif repeats regularly enough amidst the flurry of notes that the piece coheres even as Meyer and Thile go off the blisteringly fast directions that they usually do, the core of the song remains identifiable. For several of these tracks, unfortunately, this is not the case. The arpeggio sections in “Look What I Found”, a song in which Meyer plays the piano instead of the bass, pop into the song awkwardly. “The Auld Beagle” opens with a pleasing figure from Thile, but then falls into a somnambulating drift for the rest of its time. (Admittedly, given the talent of these two men, it’s a far more interesting sleepwalk than most.)
When compared to a gorgeous piece like the penultimate “I’ll Remember for You”, a duet for guitar and piano, these pieces feel more like intellectual curios than anything else. Of course, it’s hard to imagine being as talented as Meyer and Thile, all the while trying to rein in the musical adventurousness that comes from said talent. Whether they try to or not, these two men will always be playing at a level that few musicians ever achieve; as a consequence, even at their most accessible, they can seem aloof. Bass and Mandolin, then, captures what it is that makes Meyer and Thile who they are as a duo: melodically fascinating, rhythmically unassailable, and exceptionally esoteric. It’s a kind of music that is meant for the cerebral listener first and foremost. This doesn’t make it bad, of course; it just means that one shouldn’t go into the album expecting an easy ride.
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