CD reviews: Chris Thile & Michael Daves, and Brandi Carlile
August 11, 2011
produced by Thile and Daves (Nonesuch)Mandolinist Chris Thile has ventured dangerously far from bluegrass in recent years. In the final years of Nickel Creek, the trio Thile helped form before he was in his teens, the music had turned more and more toward experimental pop-rock. In the quintet Punch Brothers, his main post-Nickel Creek project, Thile just barely keeps a toe in the rural grass, as he stretches into composed string music, vocal pop, re-arrangements of rock songs – all with an emphasis on sophistication. His duo with bassist Edgar Meyer, which gets cranked up now and then, focuses on formal concert music.So for the bluegrass fan, the listener who wants Thile to loosen the tie (literally, in a sense – Thile generally performs in suit and tie these days) and let the music get a little messy, the arrival of guitarist Michael Daves is a godsend. “Sleep With One Eye Open,” the duo’s debut recording, is more about reckless exuberance than well-mannered precision. No four-movement suites, no guest cellists, no fancy jazz chords – and no composition at all, as all the material here is drawn from the old bluegrass well dug by Lester Flatt, Bill Monroe and the like. On the traditional “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” the two play musical chicken, daring one another to play as fast and sloppily as possible without derailing. On “It Takes One to Know One,” Daves – an Atlanta native who moved to New York City figuring to enter the jazz scene – sings in old-fashioned, high-and-lonesome style, with Thile adding high harmonies that are pure bluegrass. As is this entire album.Chris Thile performs with the Punch Brothers on Sept. 1 at Belly Up Aspen.
produced by Martin Feveyear (Columbia)Singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile goes in essentially the opposite direction as Thile. But where Thile’s move was a return to a familiar place, Carlile breaks into unexpected territory here.Carlile comes out of the singer-songwriter realm, with touches of rootsy country and acoustic guitar as the foundation of her smart, declarative songs. On “Live at Benaroya Hall,” her guest is the Seattle Symphony, which adds expansive orchestration to the sound. The album opens with a track titled “Curtain Call” and Carlile, who tends to dress in jeans and T-shirts, takes the stage to a backdrop of classical horns. The first actual tune, a cover of Elton John’s “Sixty Years On,” begins with strings, then piano, and you start to brace yourself for one ugly, ill-conceived crossover effort.But as the album proceeds, the symphonic flourishes are applied with a somewhat lighter touch. And by the third song, “Looking Out,” not only are the parts beginning to mesh thoughtfully, but Carlile’s voice is rising to the occasion, becoming bigger and grander than I would have imagined it being capable of. On the ballad “Before It Breaks,” this project starts making sense, with Carlile verging toward Dusty Springfield’s “Dusty in Memphis” territory – no small feat.There’s an odd moment or two, especially when Carlile’s bandmates, twins Tim and Phil Hanseroth do a version of “Sounds of Silence” that is so spot-on, I thought it was a recording of the Simon & Garfunkel original, being used as a sonic element. (Carlile, at song’s end: “Is that not the freakiest, most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard?”) And there are times when the orchestra gets a little over-blown – but by then you’re in a generous mood, figuring, hey, you have an orchestra, at some point you’ve got to see how much noise it can make.And any serious missteps are entirely forgiven with the extended cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” that closes the album. Sure, the song has been over-covered, but Carlile’s version, with the string section going for all the glory, feels practically essential.Brandi Carlile performs Aug. 20 at Belly Up Aspen.firstname.lastname@example.org