Chris Thile & Michael Daves: Sleep With One Eye Open

The latest project from Chris Thile – this time with guitar player Michael Daves – is one that bluegrass lovers can really sink their teeth into. A stripped-down, low-fi recording of two highly talented musicians re-working the classics with energy and enthusiasm, Sleep With One Eye Open is one of the most genuine bluegrass records to be released in recent times. I say genuine not to diminish the efforts of all the other great artists out there, but because it’s been quite some time since a bluegrass record has sought to capture the essence of what made some of the early recordings great. This album was made much like The Monroe Brothers, The Stanley Brothers and their contemporaries would have done; live, in one take, around one microphone. Mistakes are either left in or they started over from scratch. This gives the recording an immediacy that some of the more polished albums lack.

Recorded to analog tape in the studio of former White Stripe and low-fi devotee Jack White, this session reflects the intensity of a live performance and allows the musicians to evade the self-conscious tendencies associated with more refined productions. The power of the playing and singing and the depth of feeling Thile and Daves bring to bear throughout, lets the audience know how much they were enjoying themselves; much like the joyful exuberance found on some of the first bluegrass tracks to be recorded.

“Cry Cry Darlin'”

Listeners to this album should not confuse the simplicity of the recording itself with the quality of musicianship on display. Bluegrass fans – and mandolin players in particular – will still recognize the fast, melodic, neo-classical licks Thile honed during his time as anchor of Nickel Creek and, later, Punch Brothers. On this release though, the presence of Daves – who studied improvisation with jazz great Yusef Lateef – brings spontaneity to the tracks and allows Thile to express himself more freely. The two voices are both pitched quite high but manage to compliment each other well, reminding us again of the sound of the some of the early ‘brother duets’ bluegrass is known for. The majority of tracks here fit squarely within the bluegrass canon. Songs by Bill Monroe, The Stanley Brothers, The Louvin Brothers and Jimmy Martin among others are further evidence of the artists’ attempts to keep the record genuine and honor the traditions that ground the bluegrass music genre. ‘Rabbit in the Log’, ‘Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms’, ‘Bury Me Beneath the Willow’ and ‘Billy in the Lowground’ are just four examples from the sixteen tracks that are regularly heard at bluegrass jams by amateurs and professionals alike.

There’s not too much here for fans of Thile’s recent more mellow offerings; even the slower-tempo tunes here are infused with feistiness. The electricity generated by the interplay between the raw emotion heard from Daves and the limitless musicality of Thile really brings this recording to life. I daresay that even bluegrass music’s ‘founding fathers’ would approve.

Iain Birchwood

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