CD Review of How to Grow a Woman from the Ground by Chris Thile

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How to Grow a Woman from the Ground
starstarhalf starno starno star Label: Sugar Hill
Released: 2006
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It’s hard, for a number of reasons, to listen to Chris Thile’s music and feel anything besides jealousy and awe. He’s all of a quarter-century old, for one thing, cut his first solo record at age twelve, and has played with Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Jerry Douglas, and the incomparable Mark O’Connor, to name but a few. And then there’s all the Grammy-winning, genre-obliterating stuff he’s recorded as a member of Nickel Creek.

Not a few guys Thile’s age are living with their parents; this guy, on the other hand, has done more than a little to advance the casual public perception of bluegrass in the 21st century. Again, jealousy and awe.

Clearly, as a musician, Chris Thile possesses talent beyond reproach – which makes evaluating his albums somewhat tricky, because as a recording artist, he’s often less than the sum of his own parts.

There are reasons for this. For one, Thile’s lead instrument of choice is the mandolin, which makes it easy to notice his virtuosity – sometimes distractingly so – but hard to develop anything resembling a melodic narrative. As a result, the instrumentals on his albums tend to be all over the place, and How to Grow a Woman from the Ground is no exception; deceptively simple neo-trad numbers like “O Santo de Polvora” and “Cazadero” share space with breakneck workouts like “Watch ‘at Breakdown.” It’s often difficult to tell whether Thile and crew are playing in service of the song, or the other way around.

Compounding this problem is the fact that Thile is eclectic to a fault. It’s gotten to the point that none of his albums with or without Nickel Creek can go without a “surprising” cover or two, and Woman follows along – here’s a White Stripes song (“Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”) and a Strokes cover (“Heart in a Cage”) alongside pages from the songbooks of Gillian Welch and Jimmie Rodgers. It’s hard to begrudge Thile his efforts to further the newgrass cause, regardless of his motives; all the same, it starts to feel more than a little self-consciously showy after a while.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Chris Thile was not born to be a singer. He can hit the notes just fine, more or less, but his voice often lacks the strength and/or character to carry the song.

All of the above, to varying degrees, conspire to make How to Grow a Woman from the Ground something of a prickly, underwhelming listen. Thile’s got the chops and the wherewithal to put together a consistent recording – witness his stunning solo album Not All Who Wander Are Lost – but often seems to get in his own way. These are nice problems to have, mostly, but they’re problems nonetheless.

~Jeff Giles