Following Nickel Creek’s remarkable national breakthrough, Chris Thile has released Not All Who Wander Are Lost, the third solo outing for the 20-year-old phenom. The new record, an all-instrumental affair that takes off from the sound of Nickel Creek, reminds us of two facts: First, that Thile remains the most exploratory and creative mandolin player of his generation. Second: As recently as 1998, Nickel Creek, the ensemble that made it cool for Generation Y to enjoy acoustic music, was often thought of as Chris Thile’s band.
From the first track, Thile’s lyrical, melodic playing style shines. The first several cuts display a strong kinship to bluegrass, although, beginning with “Raining at Sunset,” the songs grow increasingly complex. By the fifth track, “Sinai to Canaan Part 1,” we can still hear the grassroots, but Chris and company are taking us somewhere else–a place where bluegrass, Celtic, classical, and jazz music feed off each other, with Thile’s formal compositions embracing the spontaneity generated by album guest stars Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Bryan Sutton, Jeff Coffin, Stuart Duncan, and Nickel Creek partners Sean and Sara Watkins.
By the time we get to “Club G.R.O.S.S.,” we seem to have entered a 21st-century counterpart to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew: a complex, endlessly fascinating and at times confusing reformulation of conventional musical wisdom. Yet, just as you think you have Thile pegged, he turns about with the introspective “You Deserve Flowers,” the exuberantly grassy “Eureka!” and the Irish-sounding “Big Sam Thompson.”
Not All Who Wander Are Lost, Thile’s debut as a producer (and a conscious effort to sum up his musical childhood), provides the strongest demonstration yet of his evolution as an instrumentalist, arranger, and composer gifted with seemingly endless energy and talent.