Almost every piece of writing I’ve seen on this debut album by Chris Thile (mandolin and vocals) and Brad Mehldau (piano) has mentioned that this combination of instruments and styles shouldn’t work, but does. I would go as far as to say that with two musicians as dedicated and versatile as Brad Mehldau and Chris Thile, that there should never have been any doubt as to whether this project would be a success. The two virtuosos have melded elements from all of their collective musical experiences together, in order to create a style of their own that happily sits between jazz, progressive bluegrass, rock, and all the various other genres that Thile and Mehldau have tried their hands at. I am tentatively referring to the style as ‘Jazzgrass’, in order to put the minds of those who like to categorise music at ease, but in reality, a fusion of bluegrass and jazz could never have sounded like this if put together by any other musicians. On this self-titled record, Thile and Mehldau have captured something truly special.
The record opens with ‘The Old Shade Tree’, the only song on the album co-written by Thile and Mehldau. What’s so important about this song is that it sets the tone for the entire record. It’s quietly intense, with its moody, bluesy chord progressions, and its dramatic, yet gradual, dynamic shifts. It’s also an opportunity for the duo to make a case for themselves as a polished musical unit, and they do so at every possible opportunity. This song is great, not only because of it’s incredibly memorable refrain or its emotional resonance in this troubling political moment, but because it demonstrates Thile and Mehldau’s ability to listen and react to each other, an ability that is prominent in almost every moment on the album.
I cannot fault either musician on their performances on this record. Particularly instrumentally, the duo stretch each other to their creative limits, using their technical ability and understanding of one another’s strengths and limitations to weave together intricate, wispy melodies and earthy, crunching chordal motifs. This is particularly prevalent in ‘The Watcher’, a Mehldau original instrumental piece, which sees the two musicians deftly trading, imitating and expanding upon each other’s ideas. It’s also heartening to see how aware Mehldau is of the limitations of the mandolin, as the sheer volume and range of the piano never overpowers the quieter instrument.
On the vocal front, Thile impresses with the most diverse set of performances he’s ever recorded. ‘The Old Shade Tree’ sees him exploding with aggression and performing dramatic feats of vocal gymnastics, whilst ‘I Cover the Waterfront’ proves his versatility, as Thile expertly slides into the idiom of the jazz standard, with his flexible tenor dropping its harshness for a silky-smooth croon. I also appreciated the inclusion of Mehldau’s subdued vocal harmonies in ‘Scarlet Town’.
Both Mehldau and Thile have a reputation for producing incredible reinterpretations of other musicians’ songs, and come together on this record with several inventive and respectful covers. They approach these tracks in just the right way: with reverence for the spirit of the original, whilst putting a new spin on it that allows them to make it all their own. ‘Independence Day’ pays homage to Elliot Smith’s beautiful harmonic and melodic ideas, and does so by leaving out the vocals. This allows for a stunning back-and-forth delivery of the song’s spiralling melody between Thile’s delicate cross-picking on the mandolin and Mehldau’s gentle manipulation of the piano keys. It’s also not every day that you find two musicians capable of respectfully and faithfully pulling off a Joni Mitchell song, as these two do with a haunting rendition of ‘Marcie’. I’m very put out that I don’t have the budget for vinyl, because I would kill to see what these two could do with Fiona Apple’s ‘Fast as You Can’, which is a vinyl exclusive track.
As far as covers are concerned however, Gillian Welch’s ‘Scarlet Town’ is where the duo impress the most. Aside from this subdued and brooding interpretation of the song itself being fantastic, the solos on ‘Scarlet Town’ are what make it so exciting. Mehldau shows off his slick, dexterous, harmonically dense improvisational ability, while Thile demonstrates the best of his complex, chromatically-tinged bluesy licks. Both musicians clearly have a love for improvisation, and show here how effective it is when their solos are both contrasting to, and inspired by each other.
Despite the album’s high volume of covers, Thile and Mehldau still amaze with the record’s five original tracks. Mehldau’s ‘Tallahassee Junction’ and ‘The Watcher’, are both jaunty, instrumental romps, which showcase the pianist’s love and reverence for the aesthetic of blues, as well as his voracious exploration of new harmonic ideas. Thile also contributes two originals to the album. The first, ‘Noise Machine’, is a quiet song that builds, steadily, in volume and intensity to reflect Thile’s frustration at having to quietly practice the mandolin at night without disturbing the neighbours. ‘Daughter of Eve’ is a song about some of the weirder things that have been written about the Garden of Eden, which Thile has been playing live, solo, for a number of years. I’m glad that this is the setting in which he chose to record the song, as its jagged melodies and shifting harmonic directions perfectly suit Mehldau’s playing style and the rapport the duo has when playing together.
Albums like this – ones that make my heart sing (as cheesy as that sounds) – are few and far between. Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau shines from start to finish, equally filled with energetic moments of sheer joy, and calmer, pondering moments of sober reflection. None of this could have been achieved by musicians of lesser talent and vision than Thile and Mehldau, and I desperately hope that this collaborative endeavour is the first of many.