Music

Chris Thile and Mike Marshall: Live Duets

Live mandolins duel across the whole musical spectrum.

Do you believe in too much of one good thing?

Generally, I don't. I'm a fan of chocolate chocolate-chip ice cream and double features. But in music, a double dose of deliciousness can be dangerous. The Three Tenors is two too many, and how many "supergroups" were ever better than a bunch of guys who met in their hometown, whether Liverpool or Detroit?

On Live Duets, Mike Marshall and Chris Thile boil this problem down to bare essentials. Each is a monster on the same instrument -- the mandolin. Each is a virtuoso who plays across multiple styles but with a basic grounding in bluegrass, which is to the mandolin as jazz is to the saxophone. First in festival performances, then in 2003's studio album Into the Cauldron, and now with this live document, Marshall and Thile do their darnedest to play in a complementary way, simultaneously not getting in each other's way and not squelching their God-given obligation to wail.

So, do they solve the problem?

Mostly. And they do it a bunch of different ways. On the tracks that are true mandolin duets, such as the opener "Shoulda Seen It Coming'", they play in delicate harmony and counterpoint that never threatens to overwhelm. Like two pieces of lace overlaid, the two mandolins can seem fussy, but these two experts know how to stay out of each other's way. Marshall's solo is simple and deep, then Thile scorches up the neck, after which they play the theme like Arthur Rubenstein's two hands.

On other tracks, however, one player shifts to a deeper instrument. On Thile's "I'd Go Back If I Could", Marshall plays the mandocello, laying down a snappy bass line throughout. "Hualalai" finds Marshall playing the viola-like mandola as well, giving the duet a full range of sound across several registers, with Thile quick-stepping on the high end like a wide receiver on the sideline. I'm guessing this technique helps to simulate the concert setting of there recordings too -- as you can better hear the distinction or location of the two players before.

Nowhere is this plainer than on the duo's read of a J.S. Bach violin partita, where Marshall plays a fully-realized harmony part on mandocello against Thile's graceful and swinging baroque melody line. You've rarely heard a straight classical reading given this much joy and bounce. Somehow, without changing a note, they shoehorn a sweet dose of Flatt and Scruggs into a powdered wig.

That said, there are stretches here where the delicate delight of the two mandolins threatens to float away on a cloud. As beguiling as the playing is on Marshall's "Joy Ride in a Toy Car/Hey Ho", it lacks oomph coming from your speakers or earphones. Even in the second, blisteringly paced half, the music feels incomplete with the tub-thump of a bass or the elastic rip of fiddle. These guys jam with remarkable abandon, however, and you know it would be quite different were they playing right before your eyes.

One of the tastiest morsels here is "Sedi Donka" a traditional Bulgarian tune that prompts some killer solos and ghost-perfect unison playing. This song, with a melody sufficiently distinct from the Celtic and American stuff we're used to hearing for mandolin, starts with a syncopated chucked rhythm and just barrels down the tracks. As a surely different color, it's arguably what the whole album could have used more of. Compared to the closer "Tanja" or the atmospheric but slim "The Only Way Out", this tune bristles with heat. Even better, I think, is the blues-bent if slower "Carpathian Mt. Breakdown" -- a relaxed ramble of musical conversation that you never want to end.

I have no doubt that a conversation is one of the metaphors that Chris Thile and Mike Marshall would use for their playing. In their own bands -- particularly with Thile and his regular group, Nickel Creek -- there is less time and space in the arrangements for a good long chat. So Live Duets seems like it is mostly a joy all around, even if it could have used a few more arguments or belly laughs.

7

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less
10

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image