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Noam Pikelny

Beat the Devil and Carry A Rail – 2011 (Compass)

Reviewed by Kevin Oliver

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CDs by Noam Pikelny

Go ahead and insert a banjo joke here, the comedic side of me says, since Noam Pikelny won something called the 2010 Steve Martin Prize for excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, but it's hard to make fun of someone who has taken the oft-maligned instrument to new heights of melodicism and musical invention.

Pikelny is best known these days for his role in the Punch Brothers, the post-Nickel Creek refuge of Chris Thile. His band mates appear throughout this new solo outing and Punch Brothers fiddler Gabe Witcher serves as producer, along with a trainload of guests such as Bryan Sutton, Tim O'Brien, Jerry Douglas and Martin.

Pikelny's gift is that he turns the banjo into more than just a percussive bluegrass instrument, instead reimagining it as a melodic leader with rhythmic intensity that he builds and breaks down with astonishing ease. There are fast-paced workouts that will make any decent instrumentalist shake their head in wonder, such as Bear Dog Grit, a trio including Sutton and Thile, and there are vocal numbers including the Tom Waits tune Fish and Bird with Crooked Still's Aoife O'Donovan as guest vocalist.

He doesn't leave out the traditional role of the banjo completely, as his duet with Martin on Cluck Old Hen and a playful Bob McKinney featuring O'Brien on vocals prove.

The tracks that set Pikelny apart, however, are the more sedate instrumentals such as Boathouse on the Lullwater, where there is no attempt to be flashy or fast, just an honest, emotion-baring melody that allows him to pluck heartstrings as well as the ones on his banjo.