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Bluegrass has been known for its virtuosity as much as its conservatism. As much as it can be thrilling with its rapid improvisations, audiences expect musicians to sound like the men who created the genre. Nonetheless, a few people have come along over the last decade who have tried to update the genre, incorporating the ethics of Alternative without abandoning Bluegrass’ sound. For the banjo, this means honoring the Scruggs sound.

Noam Pikelny would never be mistaken for an acolyte of Earl Scruggs. He did not come to the banjo from Bluegrass, through listening to the classics of Bill Monroe and his collaborators; rather it was the other way around. He learned from players of his native Chicago and listened to the “Newgrass” records of the 1970s, particularly Bela Fleck. Playing the banjo has instead brought him to the edges of Bluegrass, developing an intuitive approach to the instrument that has made him a rising star on the “Progressive Acoustic” scene as part of Chris Thile’s Punch Brothers.

Pikelny’s style is on on display on his second solo album, Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail. It’s a mostly instrumental album in which he collaborates with stellar musicians (including Thile, Steve Martin, Jerry Douglas, and Tim O’Brien) on twelve tunes. However, what’s center stage is not these stars or even Pikelny’s own virtuosity. It’s his leadership and aesthetic that makes this perhaps the year’s best acoustic album. His playing is smooth and often melodic. He dispenses with the usual Bluegrass rolls. Moreover, he moves from the bright ringing of the open strings at the lower end of the neck to find warm and surprisingly dark tones. The result is a style that is cerebral and deceptively complex, often sounding light and deft.

None of this, though, is particularly obvious. Pikelny doesn’t take the spotlight as much as might be expected. He is a modest presence on the first three tracks, giving prominent leads to the other musicians while he establishes the compositions and moves the music forward, highlighting his collaborators. The album leads off with one of Pikelny’s tunes, “Jim Thompson’s Horse,” a complicated composition with shifting tempos and meters. After establishing a sprightly melody, the banjo moves behind the other soloists. It’s only in the last third that Pikelny comes to the fore, but to share in the group improvisation. (A download of this track can be had for an e-mail address at Pikelny’s website.)

A cover of Tom Waits’ “Fish and Bird” is one of two songs on the album. It’s a trick borrowed from bossman Thile, who plays inventive covers by Pavement, The White Stripes, even (gasp) Britney Spears. The allegory of incompatible love is delivered with heart-breaking beauty by Aoife O’Donovan. Pikelny and cohort play delicately, behind her, establishing the song’s fragility as no interpreter has before. Indeed, this should be the song’s definitive version. On the other hand, the instrumental “Bear Dog Grit” is the album’s monster. A wolf in sheep’s clothing, the tune employs the sounds of Bluegrass but would better be described as Jazz or Prog Rock. The band works through the complicated melody over a dissonant progression with breakneck speed. Fellow Punch Brothers member Chris Eldridge steps out to establish the feel of the tune. This is beyond Bluegrass. (These tracks can be sampled at Compass Record’s website.)

From start to finish, Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail is brimming with ideas.  It is full of subtle sounds and complex melodies that create a sound that is quite warm and inviting.  He may not be in the best position to shape Progressive Acoustic, appearing mostly as a sideman and an instrumentalist, but on this album, he makes a bold statement about what it could become.

You can watch this mockumentary by Funny or Die that “explains” how this became an instrumental album.

Bad Thoughts was born somewhere in the Far West and now lives somwhere in the Southeast. He claims to know something about local culture and the past. He still promises his parents and advisors he'll finish dissertating some day. Bad Thoughts also inflicts his mandolin playing on people. If you ask him about "Bad Thoughts," he'll bore you with stories of hanging out with Billy Zoom as a teenager.
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