CD Review: Chris Thile & Michael Daves, Sleep With One Eye Open
I’ve been smiling since I heard the new CD by Chris Thile and Michael Daves. Here’s why:
If you skipped the video to see what else I have to say, go back and watch it. Seriously. If you’re reading this on a smartphone or some other format that doesn’t allow you to watch the video, come back later. I mean it. The video really is that important to understanding what Thile and Daves have done with their new album.
I took it as a good sign when the Thile/Daves project took the name of a Lester Flatt song. Chris Thile has been impressing me over the past few years but I haven’t been loving it, if you know what I mean. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Chris Thile. I know that I’m supposed to be loving all his stuff, too, including the quasi-classical, esoteric stuff, but it’s so hard, like when you go to a jazz club after a heavy dinner and you know that singer is probably setting some world record for cool, doing those sounds with her voice like she’s an instrument, getting knowing looks from the bass player, getting oohs and ahs from the crowd, but you really need a beer and a rocking band, but you don’t say anything because your date is hot and she said she wanted to go to this club, so you smile at her, and she smiles back but all the while she’s thinking, is there any way we could get out of here, get a beer and hear a rocking band.
I was a cautiously optimistic about Sleep With One Eye Open, based on the title and some early buzz about the CD being more traditional. When I saw the first track was Rabbit In The Log, a tune about trying to get a rabbit out of the log when your dog is elsewhere, I knew everything was going to be all right. That song talks about taking some briars and twisting them into the rabbit’s hair, which is exactly what I wanted to do to Chris Thile the second time I heard him and Punch Brothers do the live version of the forty-minute, four-movement suite, The Blind Leaving The Blind, this time sitting in a beautifully restored performance hall in Meridian, Mississippi. I couldn’t, though, because I didn’t have any briars, he was too far away and we were with another couple who had bought the tickets, so I just smiled at them and my wife and squirmed in my seat a bit. Then on the way home, they were like, what’s up with that Blind Leaving The Blind thing? Did it really last forty minutes? We should have slipped out of there, found a beer and a rocking band.
I am so happy to say that after hearing the whole album, everything’s okay. It’s better than okay. I’m smiling. Here’s an album with two Bill Monroe and two Lester Flatt tunes as well as a Flatt & Scruggs number. Five of the songs have their authorship as “traditional,” including the Rabbit tune. Another really nice traditional number is Bury Me Beneath The Willows, which, coincidentally, is the bonus track on the new Greencards CD that comes out next month. It’s a great song that probably deserves a blog post of its own, if I could ever get around to it.
There are tons of CD’s that include lots of old bluegrass tunes – even with Chris Thile and Michael Daves, that’s not necessarily a formula for a winning album. What makes this album different is that despite all this old-time material, there’s nothing old about it. Thile describes the new feel as “East Side punk energy.” That sounds good to me. This is why the video was so important – without it, it would be really hard for you to know what we’re talking about. Sleep With One Eye Open is your grandfather’s bluegrass, yet it is not your grandfather’s bluegrass, yet it is. Now we’re getting somewhere.
Michael Hill wrote the liner notes for the CD, and they should be nominated for a Grammy (as should the CD). He tells of Thile going to New York to live in the Village after his divorce in 2005, where Thile meets Daves at a bluegrass jam at the Baggot Inn. Daves says “After everybody else had stopped playing and things were dying down, we went off to a corner and ended up jamming for a couple of hours. I knew he played mandolin in a refined, technical manner, while I found myself more interested in basic, raw stuff. But once we started playing we totally hit it off, and I realized he was a very adventurous musician. We went to places musically, even in that first meeting, that I had never gone to with other players . . . ”
Thile says, “I have a tendency to over-think things and to put too severe a microscope on everything that’s being played or sung, and I can squeeze the life out of some music as a result. Michael helps me get out of that part of my musicianship. . . . It’s liberating, all of a sudden being given license to not think so goddamned much and to just let it fly.”
Let if fly they did, all the way to Jack White’s studio the first part of this year. They wanted White to produce the record but he had other engagements and could only make time to produce two sides of a single that will be released separately. White pitched them the keys to the studio and made engineer Vance Powell available. They self-produced, recording the songs like they play them, “huddled around a microphone doing our best” for four days. Sleep With One Eye Open is the happy result. It’s just a guess, but I think Bill Monroe would dig on this stuff. As for me, I found the rocking band, now I need a beer.
Sleep With One Eye Open is on Nonesuch Records.
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