When cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist and multi-instrumentalist Stuart Duncan, bassist Edgar Meyer and mandolin maestro Chris Thile got together and released the GRAMMY-winning The Goat Rodeo Sessions in 2011, it seemed a one-off collaboration unlikely ever to recur. The four virtuosos’ invigorating fusion of folk, bluegrass, classical music and a cheeky strain of avant-garde was a major hit among the crossover cognoscenti, even spawning a cinecast. But the members then went their separate ways, keeping ridiculously busy with thriving careers as accomplished soloists and collaborators with many different projects.
But the boys are back in town with Not Our First Goat Rodeo, a set of 10 whimsically titled new tracks of mostly instrumental concoctions from the same recipe, but with a slightly heftier pinch of the experimental. The album opens with a collage of bluegrass, raga and modernism called “Your Coffee Is a Disaster,” built on rubbery scales and stark gestures in a confusing time signature that relaxes periodically into a followable 5/8. Beatles fans might hear an echo of “Within You Without You.” That Eastern flavor reappears in the penultimate track, the dark and ruminative “Nebbia.”
A sighing melody from the cello threads through “Waltz Whitman,” one of the album’s closest approaches to pure folk music, this one with an Irish lilt. The violin takes the melody in the chorus, the cello keening an evocative harmony, the mandolin plucking along. “Voilà” also has a somewhat traditional sound, evoking barn-dance fiddle tunes, throaty and rich when the cello takes over the bouncy melody, and a little off-kilter when the band launches into vigorously sawed non-traditional harmonies.
Aoife O’Donovan makes a return engagement to vocally harmonize with Thile on “The Trappings,” a song that sounds unfocused at first but grows like a magic mushroom, with flowing counterpoint passages and a concise build. She also contributes soft, agile vocals on the cinematic, slightly creepy “We Were Animals.” O’Donovan’s rare, complex timbre is lovely both on its own and in harmony with Thile’s more homespun voice.
Thile shines instrumentally too, of course, as in the mandolin feature “Scarcely Cricket.” The track shouts newgrass, with a soft lyrical interlude; the build-up in the final minute is a marvel of offbeat acoustic excitement (see video below).
With glancing mandolin gestures over a bass ostinato, sliding tones, and wordless vocal harmonies, “Every Note a Pearl” feels trippy and slightly scary. The spacious “Not for Lack of Trying” recalls the 20th-century avant-garde – the serialism of Milton Babbitt comes to mind. And the closing track, “757ml,” has a dramatic storytelling vibe of which Prokofiev would have approved.
Not Our First Goat Rodeo is out now on Sony Music Masterworks.