Music

Chris Thile: How to Grow a Woman From the Ground

The Nickel Creek front man and mandolin marvel drops back for a relatively traditional bluegrass date, featuring other young hotshots and a couple of modern rock covers with a Kentucky tinge.

How to Grow a Woman From the Ground
Chris Thile

Sugar Hill

12 Sep 2006

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.

7
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.

Film

From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?

Music

The 50 Best Songs of 2007

Journey back 13 years to a stellar year for Rihanna, M.I.A., Arcade Fire, and Kanye West. From hip-hop to indie rock and everywhere in between, PopMatters picks the best 50 songs of 2007.

Music

'Modern' Is the Pinnacle of Post-Comeback Buzzcocks' Records

Presented as part of the new Buzzcocks' box-set, Sell You Everything, Modern showed a band that wasn't interested in just repeating itself or playing to nostalgia.

Music

​Nearly 50 and Nearly Unplugged: 'ChangesNowBowie' Is a Glimpse Into a Brilliant Mind

Nine tracks, recorded by the BBC in 1996 show David Bowie in a relaxed and playful mood. ChangesNowBowie is a glimpse into a brilliant mind.

Music

Reaching for the Sky: An Interview with Singer-Songwriter Bruce Sudano

How did Bruce Sudano become a superhero? PopMatters has the answer as Sudano celebrates the release of Spirals and reflects on his career from Brooklyn Dreams to Broadway.

Music

Inventions Conjure Mystery and Hope with the Intensely Creative 'Continuous Portrait'

Instrumental duo Matthew Robert Cooper (Eluvium) and Mark T. Smith (Explosions in the Sky) release their first album in five years as Inventions. Continuous Portrait is both sonically thrilling and oddly soothing.

Music

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch Are 'Live at the Village Vanguard' to Raise Money for Musicians

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch release a live recording from a 2018 show to raise money for a good cause: other jazz musicians.

Music

Lady Gaga's 'Chromatica' Hides Its True Intentions Behind Dancefloor Exuberance

Lady Gaga's Chromatica is the most lively and consistent record she's made since Born This Way, embracing everything great about her dance-pop early days and giving it a fresh twist.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Street Art As Sprayed Solidarity: Global Corona Graffiti

COVID-19-related street art functions as a vehicle for political critique and social engagement. It offers a form of global solidarity in a time of crisis.

Music

Gretchen Peters Honors Mickey Newbury With "The Sailor" and New Album (premiere + interview)

Gretchen Peters' latest album, The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury, celebrates one of American songwriting's most underappreciated artists. Hear Peters' new single "The Sailor" as she talks about her latest project.

Music

Okkyung Lee Goes From Classical to Noise on the Stellar 'Yeo-Neun'

Cellist Okkyung Lee walks a fine line between classical and noise on the splendid, minimalist excursion Yeo-Neun.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.