The trio of Sean and Sara Watkins (siblings, on guitar and fiddle, respectively) and mandolin/banjo player Chris Thile got its start playing pizza parlors in San Diego and thereafter became a festival circuit favorite. But they really started turning heads in 2000, with the release of their first (eponymous) major record -- partly because they were young (Thile and Sara Watkins were 19 at the time; Sean Watkins, just 23), and partly because Thile's cute, coy looks were tailor-made for the WB crowd. But just as much because they were damn good.
The album's opening track, the instrumental "Ode to a Butterfly," sounded like the result of a wild night driving through the Tennessee countryside on uppers, with each member taking turns on lightning-fast flights over and across and up and down the scales. Somehow they topped that track again and again throughout the course of the album. "The House of Tom Bombadil" picks up where "Butterfly" left off, transporting the party to Ireland and knocking the whole thing into an unidentifiable time sequence. Alternating between manic instrumentals and earnest (if a little sappy) ballads, the band recalled Bela Fleck more than Bill Monroe -- kind of like bluegrass, but really like nothing you'd ever heard before.
They followed it in 2002 with This Side, a classic up-yours-for-thinking-you-know-what-we're-about sophomore release that bent and blurred the genres even further. Considerably poppier, and not a little jazz-inflected, it was a risky choice. They garnered a degree of indie street cred for a cover of Pavement's "Spit on a Stranger" that might actually beat the original (Thile cites Wilco, Calexico and Radiohead as influences, among others), but the rest of the album is an uneven experiment in style. The record likely lost the bluegrass purists, even as it gained the band more pop fans.
Whatever the case, though, it seems they're not done learning. Why Should the Fire Die?, released in August, continues the group's journey into unexplored territory. The difference: This one's solid. It's darker, more contemplative, and what music critics like to call "gorgeous." Hammering you over with a rock groove one minute, a techno-ish beat the next, it then returns to a straight-up mountain ramble before swinging into something sounding like The Triplets of Belleville soundtrack.
The highlight of the disc is the dark, riotous, screaming "Can't Complain." Exceptional in the recording, it could be positively electrifying in concert, as it builds and builds and builds, then blows the top off. If you're gonna call out a request Saturday night, try that one. Or get real drunk, request "Tom Bombadil" and just try to dance along to it.