The start of Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile’s “Fence Post in the Front Yard” contains picking so fleetly virtuosic, it is to laugh. Chops city yo, and in case you’re unfamiliar with the esteemed bassist and beloved mandolin player, they have all sorts of eloquence at their disposal. But speed is a momentary titillation and guys like these know it. Useful, sure—in short doses.
Thile, of Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers fame, likes playing rigorous passages but chooses his material wisely. The aforementioned 2008 duo disc is built on motifs much more informal than the frenetics of “Fence Post” would have us believe. That’s a plus. Regardless of his prodigy childhood and expert way with Bach, the new host of “A Prairie Home Companion” proves most engaging when a bit of tradition stays tucked into his pocket.
That’s not to say the Punch Brothers, a string band built on prog notions, wasn’t a hoot. Yet they had arcane moments, usually when grandiosity swamped a tune’s allure or complexity yielded a cul de sac. Thile’s new duet disc with jazz pianist Brad Mehldau occasionally feels like it could get soggy with excess. Ornamental moments dot the landscape. But—ta da!—the pair showcases myriad ways of lining these performances with persuasive aplomb.
“Daughter of Eve” sports a sideways structure, zigging left when you think it might zag right, and tilting toward the labyrinthine in an intriguing way. The duo kicks off its filigreed interpretation with baroque flair, but their commitment to both clarity and vernacular remains deep enough to ground the action. As its eight twisty minutes conclude, it feels as if a symphony gets hidden inside a folk song.
Although an oddity on paper, the mandolin/piano choice makes for a fetching combo. The instruments cover lots of turf, timbre-wise, and the alliance between these players is terrific. They toured together a few years back, establishing a songbook and nurturing camaraderie. Here it feels like they’re not only on the same page but simultaneously writing the same sentence. The braided lines of “Tallahassee Junction” speak to the kinship of counterpoint. A gliding momentum energizes the Mehldau original “The Watcher.” Synched nicely, these guys prioritize poise. As the latter track alludes to “Love for Sale,” the action dips and swoops exactly the way it should if it’s going to claim the victory of total integrity.
The old-guard bluegrass formulas and simpler song designs that bubble up are enticing in their own ways. By keeping things sparse, the duo accentuates the dread of Gillian Welch’s “Scarlet Town.” And, rightfully, there’s no flash in play on Joni Mitchell’s “Marcie.” Mehldau simply provides his partner with a plush cushion to sparingly decorate. While they have some fun prancing through a vocal-less version of Elliott Smith’s “Independence Day,” the modesty of Ruaidri Dáll O Catháin’s “Tabhair dom do Lámh” resonates just as much. As a duo, their artistic persona comes across as convincingly during the ornate drama of “Noise Machine” as it does amidst the jaunty lilt of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.”
Splitting the difference between embellishment and restraint is the true achievement at hand. Seems like their signature virtuosity can be summoned at any time, but it’s only dispensed when needed. Maybe this is actually a trio, with judiciousness always riding shotgun.