Album of the Week: Sleep With One Eye Open, Chris Thile and Michael Daves

I might as well just come right out and say it: I don’t really consider myself a bluegrass fan. Although I have a lot of respect for the musical traditions it comes out of, I’ve just never much cared for the banjo-heavy, high & lonesome sound that characterizes most bluegrass I’ve heard.

By this logic, I certainly shouldn’t like Sleep With One Eye Open, which is a resolutely traditional bluegrass record.

But I do. I love it at an illogical, unsafe level.

Why? The snarky answer is that there’s no banjo anywhere on the album, but that’s only a part of it. I think what really sells it for me is the energy that Thile and Daves bring to the music. They’re not making a record for anthropological purposes, and neither of them are over 30—ever notice that most bluegrass players seem to be old?—so they attack their songs with what James Christopher Monger identified as an almost rock & roll ethos: play it fast, play it loud, play it with passion. Those are three principles I can get behind.

“Rabbit in the Log” checks all three boxes: it is fast, loud, and passionate. The fact that is also a stupefying display of technical mastery and is (to my ears, at least) done in one take, makes for an immediately engaging opener. You can’t help but be intrigued by what these two musicians are offering.

And while the piercing vocal harmonies of “Cry, Cry Darling” might make you question delving further into the album’s 16 tracks (none of which are longer than 3:48), the accessible arrangement of “Loneliness and Desperation,” which integrates some really great note choices in Thile’s jazzy solo with Daves’ rock-solid galloping rhythms, will draw you in deeper. It’s got some mainstream country and rock & roll shadings to it, and there’s a lot of—dare I say it?—crossover appeal.

I think this is probably one of the smartest things about this album: each song balances its predecessor in some way. “Loneliness and Desperation” is followed by an instrumental, “Tennessee Blues,” which is then balanced by the evocative and bluesy “20/20 Vision” before the duo slows it down with “You’re Running Wild.” Each song presents the listener with new facets of the musicians and of the music, managing to convince you that a favorite song could be right around the corner.

How about the sweet “My Little Girl in Tennessee,” with that infuriatingly catchy vocal melody and the sing-a-long chorus? Maybe you’d prefer the swaggeringly vindictive “Sleep With One Eye Open,” which, thanks to Michael Dave’s bleeding-heart vocal delivery, provides not only a lyrical but also a musical counterpoint to “Little Girl?” And who couldn’t identify with the heartbreaking and sensitive rendition of “Bury Me Beneath the Willow?” The emotion that’s so evident in Thile’s voice and Daves’ instrumental backing reinvigorates what can be a curiously flat song in the hands of other musicians.

“Billy in the Lowground” is probably my favorite instrumental on the disc, with a vaguely Celtic feel to it and a loping, hummable melody. On this track, both Thile and Daves reaffirm their musicianship by making their solos serve the song, rather than the occasionally flashy (though satisfying) displays elsewhere on the album.

Chris Thile has won plenty of accolades for his mandolin playing, including a MacArthur grant, so rather than speaking about his well-documented technical wizardry and musicianship, I’d like to give Michael Daves his due. Throughout the album, Daves’ guitar drives the songs, simultaneously filling in the low end with walking bass patterns, the middle register with chordal strumming, and a percussive element as well. It’s an impressively integrated style of guitar playing, and Daves pulls off this complexity with no audible effort.

There is something magic about Sleep With One Eye Open. Like many great albums, when taken cohesively, it becomes more than just two men and two instruments. Their energy, their interpretations, and their talent combine to create a mood that permeates the album. Thile and Daves make traditional bluegrass come to life in a way that I didn’t think could be done, disabusing listeners of any preconceived notions they may have about the music while remaining fiercely true to the genre’s soul.