According to the liner notes, in most ways Chris Thile was typical 13-year-old when he put out this debut album (and the photos of the cherubic, Chicago Cubs-bedecked teen would seem to confirm this). From the musical evidence, though, he was a typical teenager in the way that, say, Mozart was probably a typical teenager. The level of playing and compositional skill, not to mention the imagination, displayed on Leading Off... is no less than virtuosic. And, incidentally, thrillingly so. Thile already proved himself a master mandolinist on this date (not to mention a pretty accomplished acoustic guitarist and fiddler, and a burgeoning banjo picker), which would be astounding in itself. But he also proves himself a strong, if not yet fully mature, writer and arranger. It's startling to consider that one composition ("Shipwrecked") dates back to when the young man was a seasoned veteran of eight years. For all the bluegrass-level pyrotechnics, though, the music sounds slightly too subdued at times, as if Thile didn't yet feel confident enough, at least in the studio, to completely let loose. There are only a few songs on which the group breaks the proceedings down foggy-mountain style (including a great version of Bill Monroe's "Old Dangerfield"), but even a couple of those never quite reach the breaking point. Nevertheless, Thile shines throughout, and particularly shows a tenderness and depth of feeling on the ballads (the gorgeous "Faith River") and spirituals -- even the lighthearted swing tune "Panhandle Rag" -- that he should not yet, by all rights, have possessed. But it's also informative to note that arguably the finest performance, and the song on which Thile seems to be having the most fun, comes on "For All It's Worth," on which he and his fellow (teenage) Nickel Creek cohort Sean Watkins play dueling mandolins, and with amazing dexterity. The album is not quite an out-of-the-ballpark success, but it's at least a solid gap double. And that, coming from a kid already playing with the big leaguers, is incredibly impressive.
Leading Off... Review
by Stanton Swihart