Chris Thile is a once-in-a-generation guy — a flabbergasting mandolin player; a charismatic front man; a singer of range, reach, and passion; a tasty tunesmith; and a guy who is changing the core of how music is made in his area of interest. As most explosive member of the young newgrass group, Nickel Creek, Thile is already the modern-day Mick Jagger of Appalachia. In bluegrass terms, the young guy is Brando with an axe: edgy, beautiful, limitless.
How to Grow a Woman From the Ground is Thile’s latest away from Nickel Creek, and it is a nice complement to his regular group’s work. Nickel Creek’s debut album was a fairly traditional bluegrass date — instrumental breakdowns, a few melodic originals, several freshly conceived traditionals. Still teenagers, they were the toast of their scene. The next two records, however, vaguely disappointed the traditionalists — with covers of tunes by the likes of Pavement, a dose of electric guitar and drums, a series of pungent pop-rock vocals. Now, Thile has put together a band of youthful bluegrass hotshots for a very traditional outing. Traditional, that is, if you like to hear The White Stripes and The Strokes on the Bill Monroe tip.
Here’s the band, a straight bluegrass quintet: Thile on mandolin and lead, Chris Eldridge on guitar, Gabe Witcher on fiddle, Noam Pikelny on banjo, and Greg Garrison on bass. Each one is lightning, and they play together like a dream. Traditionalists certainly have nothing to fear on the lickety-split instrumentals. “O Santo de Polvora” and “The Eleventh Reel” might be out-takes from Nickel Creek, and “Watch at Breakdown”, while a stunning showcase for Thile’s ripping technique, is well within the tradition. “The Beekeeper” adds a dose of jazzy harmony and “Cazadero” throws in some hip syncopation, but mainly the crazy kids stay on the farm here.
The vocal tunes, however, cop an attitude — showing that even within the tradition, these guys aren’t standing still. Jack White’s “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” lifts matters considerably. It’s not so much the act of covering The White Stripes in a different way as it is applying Thile’s elastic, young voice with a dose of bluesy rock. There’s no doubt that Thile can lay in a sweet vocal (“Stay Away”) or a traditional vocal (“I’m Yours If You Want Me”), but “Dead Leaves” finds him passionate about the words and singing with a raspy cry. It’s a triumphant cut, to be sure.
The other rock cover is the mid-tempo “Heart in a Cage” — with Thile delivering another woozy/bluesy vocal that connects his roots music to the likes of Levon Helm and The Band, a tasty place to be. These tracks seem to inspire the band to a certain appealing sloppiness that balances of the precision that otherwise dominates. This strong feeling carries over to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’ “Wayside (Back in Time)”, where the vocal is light and the harmony is sweet yet the up-tempo romp has rock energy of a sort. The title track has the juju too: with Thile’s vocal having a lazy swoop at just the right moments.
The singing is also outstanding on the yodel-rific Jimmie Rodgers tune “Brakeman’s Blues”. Thile lifts his tenor straight up in perfect counterpoint to Witcher’s glissing fiddle, delivers some verses in a decidedly non-boyish falsetto, and — of course — comes off like a bluegrass Robert Johnson when he sets his mandolin to the task of bending pentatonic. And how about the mostly a cappella “If the Sea Was Whiskey”, with Thile dubbing up a whole rough choir of Thile’s for a slow stomp of blues?
So, what’s not to love here? Mainly that the album is not a Nickel Creek record — that it skimps on sweet melodies striking arrangements. As much as you’ll like each individual track here, the album as a whole trades in a certain sameness. As fine as the rock covers are, they blend into the traditionals and originals too easily. The 50 minutes of music glide by with rootsy panache, sure — but it also glides by. Thile is more stunning with Nickel Creek, where his goal is to make some charged-up pop music rather than to interpret someone else’s pop. This disc — as strong and vocally promising as it is — is a roots exercise that is going to be more impressive 10 or 20 years further into Thile’s career, when his gravity is as strong as his wonder.
But I nitpick. Chris Thile is a monster in the making, a player and singer who can do it all. How to Grow a Woman from the Ground isn’t his masterpiece, but it’s a journeyman’s requirement — a record where the guy grows and learns and deepens his art. Getting to hear him at work is good for you too, filling your ears with the real thing: bluegrass blended up with blues and rock, an American mixture to grow some hair on your chest.