Coming from most artists, an album like Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau would be considered a side project. But Thile, the virtuosic mandolin player/leader of super string band Punch Brothers, and pianist Mehldau, whose solo and trio efforts rank high in the jazz firmament, have departed their home bases so often—frequently in pursuit of heady pop pleasures—their new duo effort is really business as usual.
That said, this 64-minute, two-CD set is so idiosyncratic in its selection and treatment of material, it’s difficult to compare it to anything else. The surprises include a lovely instrumental reading of the late popmeister Elliott Smith’s “Independence Day,” a soulful “I Cover the Waterfront” that comes off like a Ray Charles ballad and a rollicking rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright,” on which the usually contained Mehldau shakes the rafters with rolling gospel chords. He also delivers his first recorded vocal, singing low harmony behind the breathy-voiced Thile on David Rawlings and Gillian Welch’s “Scarlet Town.”
Throughout, the duo exploits the close relationship between keys and strings, achieving a seamless oneness on tunes such as Mehldau’s sprightly “Tallahassee Junction.” Thile’s epic track “Daughter of Eve” indulges his affection for sudden thematic shifts, starting out with supple instrumental exchanges, introducing a plaintive vocal three minutes in and then working through some wrenching drama. And then there’s Thile’s winsome rendering of Joni Mitchell’s infrequently heard early work “Marcie.” In exploring the world of Americana, Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau is sometimes cozy, sometimes haunting and sometimes, unexpectedly, both.