How to Grow a Woman
from the Ground
On his latest solo album, Chris Thile of Nickel Creek sings about wanting to go back in time, but his desire isn't fueled by a feeling that the past is where his bluegrass-based music belongs. (Turns out yesteryear was the last time a particular lady was his.) Twenty-six-year-old Thile is one of roots music's most unabashed modernizers; on Nickel Creek's 2005 disc, Why Should the Fire Die?, Thile and his bandmates (who've declared that they'll dissolve Nickel Creek at the end of this year) actually found a way to pair bluegrass and emo that didn't feel any goofier than necessary. Thile's roots-music bona fides are solid (for those who care), but he's more interested in where string-band stuff can go than where it's been.
How to Grow a Woman from the Ground—the title comes from a tune of the same name by singer-songwriter Tom Brosseau, one of a handful of covers Thile tackles here—isn't as audacious as Why Should the Fire Die? And minus the clear-as-glass harmonies of Sean and Sara Watkins, it isn't as pretty. But it does extend Thile's mission: A mandolin-centered version of the White Stripes' "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" rocks harder than most NPR fare, while his take on the Strokes' "Heart in a Cage" emphasizes the sensitive-dude heart inside that band's cool-guy cage. Thile's originals tend to privilege his instrumental chops at the expense of his knack for hooks, which could be taken as a sign of retrenchment, if the chops were less Coheed and Cambria and more Del McCoury. Fire: not dead.