Mike Marshall
& Chris Thile,
Into the Cauldron
(Sugar Hill, 2003)

Mike Marshall has been one of the solid rocks on the new acoustic music scene, having created nearly a quarter century's body of work on mandolin astonishing both in its musicianship and sheer versatility. Chris Thile, the newer mando kid on the block, still has 10 years of professionalism behind him and has achieved fame as a member of the young "beyond bluegrass" band, Nickel Creek. Together they create a duo album that will have fans of both deliriously happy at the outcome.

The look of Into the Cauldron is as quirky and trippy as its music, with a whole grain/veggies/fruit graphic design that leads one to expect the cauldron will be a cook pot for the healthiest of chow. There is indeed a vast cookbook's worth of musical flavors here, starting off with "Harvest Time." If you have any doubts about the byplay between these two guys, it'll be put immediately to rest. The recorded sound is also engineered so that each voice is distinctly heard. There's a little too much echo for my taste, but with non-sustaining instruments like the mandolin, it's best to err on the side of sustain.

"Desvairada" shows how, in the hand of two masters, music can be both driving and delicate at once, and Variation #1 from Bach's Goldberg Variations works beautifully, since the sound of the mandolin is very similar to the plucked strings of the harpsichord. The mood changes radically to bebop mandolin with the old Charlie Parker favorite, "Scrapple From the Apple," a real finger-burner. The echo becomes more intrusive here with all the speedy bop lines blending into each other. If you yearn for the good old stuff, there's "Fiddler's Hornpipe," played with a modern sensibility and, of course, chops in abundance.

Thile's "Stranded in Kodiak" starts deceptively calmly, then accelerates into a tune that makes full use of the mandolin's driving and percussive qualities. However, Steve Kuhn's "The Saga of Harrison Crabfeathers" isn't much of a saga. The composition itself is less than compelling, and the piece devolves into jam band noodling (high-quality noodling, mind youÉ) before finally trailing off. Marshall's "Hey Ho" isn't a Ramones tribute, but it has the same straight-ahead, take no prisoners attitude. There's more great byplay in "Something Quite Trifling," and "What a Blast" has some eye-opening and intriguing chord changes. Things come to a quiet close with "Shamrock Shore," in which overtones make the sound even more delicate.

One warning, however -- play this one on a decent sound system. I heard this first in my car, and many tracks sounded distorted on my run-of-the-mill system. When I got it home, however, everything sounded perfect, though I still could do with a bit less echo. Still, the team of Marshall and Thile makes for a fantastic pairing, and if you've been looking forward to a meeting between these two mando giants, you won't be disappointed. This one's a real treat.

- Rambles
written by Chet Williamson
published 8 November 2003

Buy it from Amazon.com.