SLEEP WITH ONE EYE OPEN Chris Thile and Michael Daves (Nonesuch)
What do you get when two talented artists record 16 widely known, traditional numbers by bluegrass legends such as the Monroe Brothers, Louvin Brothers, Jimmy Martin, and Flatt and Scruggs? It's simple if they stay close to the feel of the originals as Thile and Daves do here. You get outstanding versions of 16 great songs.
On a couple of the tracks, the duo add a dash of extra octane to the classic song, but not so much to be distracting. The high lonesome sound is emphasized in the vocals, while the musicianship is often dazzling and in some cases even better than the originals.
Thile, a Grammy Award-winning mandolin virtuoso, honed his skills playing and singing for the acclaimed acoustic group Nickel Creek. He also has recorded several solo albums. Bluegrass veteran Daves, a singer and guitar player, had performed with Tony Trischka and Rosanne Cash before meeting Thile at a bluegrass jam in Manhattan in 2005.
The two men quickly found that their instruments and voices were a perfect blend for the type of music they enjoy, and this album is the first result of that collaboration. It is due in music stores Tuesday.
-- Ken Rosenbaum
HELPLESSNESS BLUES Fleet Foxes (SubPop)
The beardy harmonizing in vogue in indie rock is epitomized by Fleet Foxes, the suburban Seattle quintet that froze listeners in their tracks with "White Winter Hymnal," the reverb-drenched, bucolic Beach Boys highlight of the band's 2008 self-titled debut. With "Helplessness Blues," the Robin Pecknold-led band makes music that's staggeringly pretty. Check out the swooning "Lorelai," and just try to resist.
It's almost entirely without anything resembling an edge, unless you count the skronky free-jazz sax solo that takes the eight-minute "The Shrine/An Argument" by surprise. The "Smile"-era Brian Wilson reference points still apply, but the more salient point of comparison is the pristine man-singing of Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Nope, there's no Neil Young in sight. And though "Helplessness Blues" makes for a pleasurably becalming mood piece, there are times when the lonely nature-boy musings -- "Apples in the summer are golden sweet" -- could benefit from a cantankerous noisemaker interrupting the lulling gorgeousness.
--Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer
HARD BARGAIN Emmylou Harris (Nonesuch)
Two of the most affecting numbers on Emmylou Harris' new album look back at relationships with late friends and collaborators. "The Road" wistfully recalls her time with Gram Parsons ("The road we shared together once will never be the same"), while "Darlin' Kate" is a poignant tribute to Kate McGarrigle.
If there's an element of nostalgia there, you won't find any in the sound of "Hard Bargain" (named after the Ron Sexsmith song that is one of two non-originals). For the most part, the music hews to the shimmeringly atmospheric and ethereal approach she has focused on during the last decade and a half, with few of the traditional country elements that marked her earlier work. But she still possesses that unmistakable voice: a pristine beauty now with hints of wear around the edges that only add to its expressiveness.
Occasionally, stately and moving give way to just ponderous, but Harris wisely offers some welcome changes of tempo and mood: the defiant rocker "New Orleans," the playfully lighthearted "Big Black Dog," and the swamp-tinged "Six White Cadillacs."
--Nick Cristiano, Philadelphia Inquirer