If bluegrass never excited you before, “How to Grow a Woman from the Ground” is guaranteed to turn you on to the twang. The album is the third solo effort from 25-year-old mandolinist Chris Thile of the band Nickel Creek. Thile combines dance-inducing instrumentals with bluegrass-infused rock and blues to fashion a record that is at once a departure from his bluegrass roots and a tribute to traditional banjo- and mandolin-driven music.
“How to Grow” opens like any proper bluegrass record should: with rolling sheets of banjo sound in “Watch’at Breakdown.” Then Thile’s hummingbird-like mandolin darts in, weaving in repeating high-pitched lines. The tune also showcases Thile’s percussive brilliance on mandolin — the chop of pick across muted strings provides as good a backbeat as any bass drum.
Thile’s hummingbird makes other appearances as well, most notably on the record’s four other instrumentals. The bouncy “O Santo De Polvora” conjures up a sunny Spanish festival. Equally danceable are the more Celtic-sounding “Cazadero” and “The Eleventh Reel.” But the weakest of the instrumentals, “The Beekeeper,” suffers from mixing issues: sometimes the low volume is an aesthetic choice, but at others you just can’t hear the music.
Thile met his fellow virtuosos at bluegrass festivals, and with “How to Grow” he has given the relatively unknown musicians a chance to lay down the acoustic law. The most accessible tracks for the bluegrass uninitiated are “Heart in a Cage” — a Strokes cover — and “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” — a White Stripes cover. Both songs boldly feature the banjo, a fresh change from the ubiquitous guitar of most popular music. Though rock covers from a bluegrass band might seem like a stretch, Thile calls Jack White’s “Dead Leaves” “… one of the best bluegrass songs of all time.”
The band also tries its pick at a cappella with “If the Sea Was Whiskey.” Its smooth-sounding close harmonies lack the grit of the bluesy Willie Dixon original, but Thile and company compensate with greater soulfulness, and the phrases’ sudden ends and long in-between pauses add dramatic expectation.
The album’s other bluesy track, “Brakeman’s Blues,” sees Thile breaking new ground. He yodels. But not only that — he yodels one continuous yodel for over fifteen seconds. Quite an astonishing feat for a born-and-raised bluegrass boy. Whether in the Swiss Alps or his living room (where he recorded the album), Thile never ceases to explore.
Thile’s high voice is also effective in “You’re an Angel, and I’m Gonna Cry.” In the weepy country monologue, Thile jerks tears when addressing his hypothetical sweetheart: “What do you see that’s so beautiful / That it always reflects in your eyes?”
The album’s major surprises come in “Stay Away” and “I’m Yours if You Want Me.” Thile puts this dichotomy of repudiation and longing at either end of the album, using the shared slow tempo to tie the songs together. The funny thing about these tracks is that you like them least at first, but they become your favorites after repeated listenings.
The title track also grows on you, and its lyrics contain the most memorable imagery on the album. Consider: “Cut your wrist on the fins of the fish and drain all you can / So I rolled up my sleeves and then began to draw / Lines just as deep as days are long.” Just don’t try this at home, kids.
Perhaps the most traditional cut on the album, Gillian Welch’s “Wayside (Back in Time)” caters to longtime bluegrass fans. Thile’s mandolin solo throws harmonies at us in quick succession. The band controls its intensity, though, taking the volume up for brief aural joy rides and then down again to a contemplative hum.
“How to Grow” does what Chris Thile does best: bluegrass. But through Thile’s varied musical journeys, he has added unique texture to the simple mountain music of his youth. This guy is changing bluegrass, whether fans of the old twang like it or not.