Pop/Rock/World CD Reviews
Chris Thile and Michael Daves – Sleep With One Eye Open – Nonesuch Records
Published on July 12, 2011
Chris Thile and Michael Daves – Sleep With One Eye Open – Nonesuch Records 527603-2, 50:17 *****:
(Chris Thile – mandolin, vocals; Michael Daves – guitar, vocals)
Bluegrass music is as distinctly American as jazz or blues. Influenced by Scottish/Celtic instrumentation and Afro-American jazz phrasing, this unique acoustic concoction is both vigorous (most notably in the “breakdowns”) and plaintive (“high and lonesome” to many). First generation artists include Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, The Stanley Brothers, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, among many. Revered by country music purists, fifties rockabilly artists introduced this music to the youth market. The genre experienced crossover success with the unlikely commercial success of The Beverly Hillbillies Theme (Flatt and Scruggs). A generation of anti-hero veneration was fueled by the auditory imagery of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie And Clyde. A world outside the Appalachian region would be rewarded with uplifting music.
Sleeping With One Eye Open unites mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile with guitarist Michael Daves. Drawing on the rich treasure of bluegrass standards, the duo recorded sixteen tracks at Jack White’s Nashville studio. On “hiatus” from Nickel Creek, Thile crossed paths with Daves at the Baggot Inn, located in New York’s Greenwich Village. The pair decided to bring a Lower East Side spontaneous attitude to the session. Several traditional songs are covered. “Rabbit In The Log” sets the tone in an explosive interplay of mandolin and guitar. The voices have a reedy quality that fosters close harmony. A frequently covered standard, “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” is a rapturous celebration of flatpicking and strumming precision. Both musicians rip through lightning fast runs that are impressive. A slower take on “Bury Me Beneath The Willow” captures the mournful lament of ill-fated love. The vocal harmonies are reminiscent of the Everly Brothers (whose singing raised the bar for future duos). This dynamic is effervescent on the sly, humorous “It Takes One To Know One” (Harland Howard/Freddie Hart).
Bill Monroe (the father of bluegrass music) is represented with two different instrumentals. “Mississippi Waltz” is slow paced and shows versatility in tempo arrangement. Upbeat and fierce, “Tennessee Blues” is invigorating. Thile and Daves construct a full sound with lead changes, counter rhythms and impeccable timing. A key source of material comes from the iconic Lester Flatt. The title track employs a jaunty rockabilly style that produces some of the best singing on the album. Bluegrass has always been joyful, and this tune is no exception. More string fireworks permeate “My Little Girl In Tennessee”. When these two players are jamming, it feels like a much larger ensemble. Flatt and his long time writing partner, Earl Scruggs are revisited on a breezy romantic note with the appealing “If I Should Wander Back Tonight.”
The album was cut on two-inch eight-track with ribbon mics and one RCA 77 (for vocals). If the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack raised the mainstream awareness of bluegrass, then Sleep With One Eye Open delivers on its promise.
TrackList: Rabbit In The Log; Cry, Cry Darling; Loneliness And Desperation; Tennessee Blues; 20/20 Vision; You’re Running Wild; Ookpik Waltz; My Little Girl In Tennessee; Sleep With One Eye Open; Rain And Snow; Mississippi Waltz; Bury Me Beneath The Willow; Billy In The Lowground; It Takes One To Know One; If I Should Wander Back Tonight
— Robbie Gerson