CHRIS THILE How To Grow A Woman From The Ground (Sugar Hill)
Cramming an astonishing amount of activity into his quarter century (and counting) on earth, mandolinist Chris Thile has fashioned five solo albums (the first at the age of 13), formed the bluegrass ensemble Nickel Creek whilst still a teenager and has also been a member of The Modern Mandolin Quartet and Mutual Admiration Society. A crazed, youthful spirit of adventurous eclecticism runs rampant throughout How To Grow A Woman From The Ground, surely the only album where youll find songs by Jimmie Rodgers and Gillian Welch rubbing shoulders with the works of The White Stripes and The Strokes.
The opening instrumental Watch at Breakdown impresses immediately, brandishing that combination of exuberance, honesty and dexterity thats rarely encountered outside the bluegrass genre. Despite the unadorned production and arrangements Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground sounds almost upholstered, although it could hardly be rawer than Meg and Jacks original. Stay Away is the albums highlight; weightless, gorgeous and desperately sad, its one long sigh of a song. Its at moments like this that the album sounds exactly like a band playing quietly in a room; these songs were recorded live, with the musicians gathered around a pair of microphones.
The album sails closest to convention on Youre An Angel, And Im Gonna Cry; bordering onto the work of a lovestruck Ryan Adams, both beautiful and ordinary simultaneously. The title track, written by one Tom Brosseau, plays like a rural, gothic version of the film Weird Science, marinated in metaphor (The night was a chalkboard with a fingernail moon) and the slightest hint of Tom Waits boho poetry. The Beekeeper is an intricate, coruscating web of sound, both quietly breathtaking and shockingly dynamic. The country yodelling of Brakemans Blues, which follows, is jarring in context, but being a Jimmie Rodgers song has every right to sound like that. The fiddle and mandolin-led instrumental Cazadero delights in the kind of timbral variety that, for example, Bryan Suttons recent album of bluegrass guitar duets desperately needed. Heart In A Cage is the aforementioned Strokes cover, rescued from the wreckage of their third album (not that Id know, as my copy never made it out of its cellophane following the crushing disappointment of their Valentines Day gig in Blackpool), but youd hardly realise it unless you read the credits, as Thile makes it as much his own as he does the other covers presented here.
How To Grow A Woman From The Ground is the kind of album whose charms sneak up on the listener, deriving its variety from the swathe of songwriting talent canvassed rather than a broad sonic palette. In places its a quietly mighty work.