Bluegrass dances with grunge to mixed results.
Michael Daves is a fantastic player. He’s got chops, like, intimidating, scary-good chops. You’ve got to, to be put up alongside Tony Trischka and Chris Thile. It’s evident at a first listen that not only is he an electrifying player -- pun on the second half of this record aside -- he’s actually improved since his Nonesuch debut, Sleep with One Eye Open, which he recorded with Thile in 2011. The premise of Orchids and Violence is simple enough: take a set of known songs and record them, first with a live-to-tape traditional bluegrass arrangement, then electrified with a studio shine.
Any way you slice it, this sort of move isn’t subversive anymore. Bob Dylan plugged in at Newport Jazz over 50 years ago. There’s no shock value here to con the listener into sitting through the same set of songs twice. There has to be something compelling about the playing, the arranging, some way that the two halves of the album complement or complete each other that keeps an audience from listening just to one half. The traditional bluegrass half is certainly digestible, especially if you’re coming at it knowing a bit about the NYC bluegrass scene. The band features Trischka, powerhouse multi-instrumentalist Sarah Jarosz, banjo virtuoso Noam Pikelny, bassist Mike Bub, and violinist Brittany Haas. It’s a stacked lineup, a slapdash three-day recording session in a church in Park Slope, and a well-curated list of songs warmed together for a fun, energetic album. This disc alone could hold its own on the Nonesuch roster.
The electric translation is less consistent. There is a half-hearted attempt to balance the scales -- a Mother Love Bone track, “Stargazer”, has been included in the sequence of both discs, converted into an upbeat rootsy tune for the first section -- but there is a huge advantage in the bluegrass corner, given Daves’ band, his own experience, and the overwhelming proportion of bluegrass songs to anything else included on the record. Simply put, a bunch of star bluegrassers are going to play the hell out of whatever’s put in front of them, because they know how to play bluegrass. The electric disc is more precious, gives the impression it’s been fretted over to the point of exhaustion, and only a handful of the arrangements earn a repeat listen.
The instrumentals fare best. For better or worse, Michael Daves has a bluegrass voice, a nasal, lonesome sound that doesn’t translate easily to other styles of music. “Elzic’s Farewell” maps particularly well to the grunge-y, electric style cultivated on the second half of the album. The pre-order download, “The Dirt That You Throw”, is also a more natural fit in either style. Out of left field, “A Good Year for the Roses” proves itself to be a convincing electric slow jam, the standout track on the second half of the album. Unfortunately the rest of the electric interpretations run together -- they’re stretched thin and unrecognizable, then put back together with an obvious understanding of ‘90s alternative idioms but no personal stamp. “Drunken Hiccups” is a particularly tough sell, coming on the heels of “Roses” and falling entirely short.
The problem is that there’s a really good idea at the heart of this album, but it lacks the balance to carry it off convincingly. Bluegrass is having such a mainstream moment right now because artists like Chris Thile are finding avenues in their music to cross over to pop, and Orchids and Violence seems conceived with that direction in mind, but it never manages to fully marry the two ideas. It’s hesitant stepping away from the bluegrass at which its players excel. Commitment is the thing, and while Michael Daves remains an incredible player, and while this is certainly an effort to show the versatility of playing he possesses, the execution here is disappointing. As a player, you have to be able to leave your comfort zone, even if your comfort zone is purportedly huge. The risks not taken on Orchids and Violence prove to be more detrimental than they would’ve been if they’d failed.