Chris Thile’s music is intricate and full of ideas. He is clearly very creative with melody and has been fortunate to surround himself with great players (whoever they are). Unfortunately, this advance copy of Wander, due to be released this month, does not have any information on song credits, supporting players, or those other little detail that we reviewers like to slip into our writing.
This instrumental album is enjoyable, varied in pace, and chocked full of gems. Thile contributed two of the best numbers on Nickel Creek’s self-titled debut, “Ode to a Butterfly” and “In the House of Tom Bombadil”. This solo effort, a side project, shows that these are not flukes — this kid has a way with instrumental tunes and arrangement. I was a bit surprised that the album is entirely instrumental, as Thile does the vocal honors for Nickel Creek on occasion. During his performance last summer at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, a friend commented that he definitely fancies himself as a ballad singer, and I suspect his singing, which is fine, will mature to match his instrumentals, which are superlative. Perhaps he’s saving himself for the band.
The opening tune, “Song for a Young Queen,” is one of the best on the album, and sets the tone for some great follow-ups. This is not a simple set of instrumentals — they are quite complex, driven by Thile’s lightning fast way with the mandolin, and a good sense for complimentary accompaniment. I can’t imagine how he does it on “Wolfcreek Pass,” which flies so fast that you have to listen to it several times to get everything that’s going on. I suspect that fellow Nickel Creek players played fiddle and guitar on several pieces, but the other collaborators remain a mystery. Another wonderful track is “Riddles in the Dark” which gets its shadowy tinge from the conversation between the banjo and mandolin — it’s got that sense of humour and fun, that mark the best instrumental pieces, all played out through some incredible picking that owes as much to jazz as it does to any back porch legend. “Sinai to Canaan” is sensitive and subdued, creating a nice breathing space amid the quicker numbers. I also particularly like “Eureka” which has that rollicking bluegrass feel that lures so many people to festivals and the aisles of music shops. This one is a cut above, folks, from a fine young player that has all the stuff it takes to become one of the greats as he matures.
(Sugar Hill Records, 2001)