: Album reviewSubject
: Chris Thile, How to Grow a Woman From the GroundDate
: October 2006Publication
: Platter Chatter
Details: Platter Chatter is the customer newsletter for Seattle record store chain Silver Platters.
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Once a child prodigy of the mandolin, then an enterprising teenager with the increasingly popular band Nickel Creek, Chris Thile has been making solo albums since the tender age of 14. How to Grow a Woman From the Ground is just the latest step in the musical evolution of one of bluegrass’ most innovative performers.
Thile wrote only half the songs on the album, in stark contrast to his last solo effort, Deceiver, on which he not only wrote all the songs but also played all the instruments. For How to Grow, he assembled a group of talented young bluegrass musicians (dubbed “The How to Grow a Band”) to perform with him: Noam Pilkeny (banjo), Gabe Witcher (fiddle), Chris Eldridge (guitar), and Greg Garrison (bass). His bandmates seem to have served to center him; where Deceiver was a brilliant but sprawling cacophony of diverse influences, How to Grow a Woman From the Ground is more cohesive and grounded, though no less inventive.
Thile’s choice of tunes to cover reaches every end of the spectrum. “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” is a selection improbably borrowed from art-rockers The White Stripes; there is no love lost between Jack White and myself, but Thile’s bluesy interpretation flows easily with the rest of the album, seeming neither gimmicky nor incongruous. The Jimmie Rodgers tune “Brakeman’s Blues” seems a more likely choice for this group, and we are treated to some vocal pyrotechnics by Thile, including some Monroe-style yodeling. Thile takes “Heart in a Cage” from mod-rockers The Strokes, turning the dark electro-rock song into a gospel-tinted bluegrass tune. Straying to yet another genre, “O Santo De Polvora” is a pleasant Irish reel from Spanish Celtic band Milladoiro. Thile takes Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’ “Wayside (Back in Time)” up several notches on the energy scale and makes it travel. Even the title track is a cover, a haunting tune by little-known folky Thomas Brosseau.
But let us not neglect Thile’s original compositions in this whirlwind of surprising covers. “You’re an Angel and I’m Gonna Cry” is a ode to unattainable love, showcasing Thile’s heart-rending vocals. “Watch ‘at Breakdown” was specifically tailored to be the first track and modeled after Bela Fleck’s “Whitewater,” which Thile calls, “One of the best first tracks of any record in any genre.” I dare any traditionalists not to have their toes a-tapping to that one.
Recorded practically live through just two mics and almost entirely analog, the album captures the intensity, heart, and talent of this group, all of which they possess in spades. Lucky for us, they don’t plan to stop anytime soon: now that Nickel Creek is all but dissolved, Thile has announced that he intends to continue touring and recording with this group, soon to be called The Tensions Mountain Boys. How to Grow serves as not only Thile’s best solo album to date, but a taste of what this talented group will accomplish in the future.