Chris Thile,
How to Grow a
Woman from the Ground

(Sugar Hill, 2006)

Mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile was a member of the recently disbanded bluegrass trio, Nickel Creek. Thile started young, releasing his debut solo album at the age of just 12, with How to Grow a Woman from the Ground being his fifth solo offering. Thile's mandolin playing is phenomenal and is the driving force behind much of the material on the album. Vocally, Thile ranges from hushed whisper -- sometimes too hushed -- to frenzied old-timey, at times recalling early Neil Young or Ryan Adams.

"Back In Time" is a Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings composition, and their original subdued performance really did make you feel that you'd gone back in time. Thile achieves the same effect albeit through a totally different, almost frantic arrangement. The strength of this track is as much a testament to Thile's adept arrangement skills as it is to Welch and Rawlings' masterful songwriting.

The instrumental pieces on How to Grow a Woman from the Ground are an absolute tour de force of bluegrass playing. Particularly enjoyable is the European-flavoured "O Santo De Polvora," penned by the Galician band Milladoiro and, not surprisingly, involving a noticeable degree of Celtic influence. Thile's own instrumental composition, "The Beekeeper," also appears to have Celtic roots, being underscored by a particularly Irish-sounding waltz.

Thile borrows a few more songs from some distinguished and surprising sources and graces them with his distinctive bluegrass treatment; notably, "Dead Leaves & the Dirty Ground" from the White Stripes and "Heart in a Cage" from the Strokes. However, the most sensitive songs on the album are courtesy of Thile's own creativity; the gentle ballad "You're an Angel & I'm Gonna Cry," and the sparsely arranged and somewhat disconcerting "I'm Yours If You Want Me."

How to Grow a Woman from the Ground is an excellent showcase for this multi-talented musician; be it his own songwriting or composing, his adept arrangements of the work of others or his mandolin wizardry. Think Alison Krauss -- with attitude. Heaps of it!

by Mike Wilson
14 October 2006

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