With Nickel Creek on indefinite hiatus, Chris Thile is stuck. True, his virtuosic, mandolin-led bluegrass compositions on his fifth EP, How to Grow a Woman From the Ground, stand up-both in technical proficiency and the more intangible quality of raw emotion and tempered passion-to the best of Nickel Creek’s catalog. “Stay Away” and the title track are perfect examples of the precision and power Thile brought to his former group.
But at this point in his career it’s time for Thile to identify himself, and songs such as the largely a cappella “If the Sea was Whiskey” showcase what’s really enticing about Thile: His creativity stretches far beyond bluegrass’s fence. Covering the Strokes “Heart in a Cage” and the White Stripes’ “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” don’t come off as hokey as you might think, but they’re not remarkable. The real fire is in the magically sparse “I’m Yours If You Want Me,” where you’ll hear, if not in robust arrangement, than in passion and non-traditional instrumentation, a little of Andrew Bird. He’s mastered bluegrass, and now I can’t help pushing for Thile to take Bird’s lead and show us something we haven’t heard yet, something only a musician of his level is capable of delivering.