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Nickel Creek

Reasons Why: The Very Best

(Sugar Hill; US: 14 Nov 2006; UK: 13 Nov 2006)

And the next item up for auction, my friends, is a “greatest hits” collection by a band, with a mere three discs to its credit.  A wonderful and fine and lauded band, to be sure, my friends, a trio of handsome pickers/fiddlers with angelic voices and technique to spare.  A CD featuring a dozen studio gems and two live tracks, then a DVD of seven smooth, VH1-tested videos that make these young folk look adorable indeed.  Do I hear $15?


Cynical marketing?  Nickel Creek—the charming and stupendous newgrass group that can sound traditional or indie-poppy and look great doing so—announces it has “decided to take a break of indefinite length at the end of 2007”.  And, sure enough:  BOING!, out pops a greatest hits record.  Fans begin to worry.  Better see them live this year for one last time.  And, even though fans will already have the band’s three discs, they’re lured by two live tracks and seven music videos on the bonus DVD.


Or not?  After all, these three bluegrass wunderkinds have been playing together forever.  With burgeoning solo careers all, they deserve a break.  And though three albums (good as they were) may not ultimately justify a “greatest hits” package, Reasons Why is an ideal introduction to the delights of Nickel Creek.  Fans don’t really need this record, but folks who don’t know the band couldn’t find a better introduction.


The critical opinion on this music is already clear: it is exceptional.  It’s not just that it is “pretty”, though it is.  Nickel Creek’s sensibility is original and compelling.  The band combines basic bluegrass form—acoustic string music of high virtuosity and high, stacked harmonies—with the hooks and lush melodicism of pop music and with the questing edge of today’s independent music.  The meshing is integral and natural.  It feels like this amalgam should have existed forever, but it had not.  Terrific songwriting, canny selection of folk/country/rock standards, dazzling solos, and great singing:  check times four.  Nickel Creek is terrific.


But how does Reasons Why fare as a “best of”?


The mixture of tunes from the studio albums count out this way: five from the most recent, Why Should the Fire Die?, four from the debut, Nickel Creek, and three from This Side—though one of the live tracks is a tune from the debut as well.  This about makes sense, the second album being a transition record between the band’s traditional beginning and its pop leanings today.


The selections are plainly the fan favorites—the songs with the juiciest melodies and the most outright emotional appeal.  Normally, this is the spot where a critic laments the exclusion of the better, deeper cuts, the cuts with the sublime solos or the subtler pleasures.  But Nickel is not really that kind of band.  The good stuff—the brilliant playing of mandolinist Chris Thile, for example, or the more nuanced vocal harmonies, or the tastier guitar and fiddle play from brother-sister Sean and Sarah Watkins—is just as evident in these “poppier” tracks.


For traditional tastes, “The Lighthouse’s Tale” is a classic story-song, even if it was written by the young Thile.  “When You Come Back Down”, written by the great Tim O’Brien and Danny O’Keefe, is what country music is supposed to be in every sense—heartfelt folk music from the center of the culture.  For people looking for great acoustic pop music, there’s no shortage here, as both Thile and Sean Watkins write hooky tunes that you can listen to over and over—“When in Rome” and “Helena” are punchy and edgy Thile tunes that bring an indie edge to the newgrass sound, and “Somebody More Like You” and “Reasons Why” are Watkins tunes that deliver flat-perfect pop vocal melodies.


The obvious complaint, I suppose, is that there is only one instrumental track, the intricate “Smoothie Song”.  But there are ample moments for these incredible kids to show off their chops in support of the vocals.  Truth is, if you call a record “The Very Best”, folks deserve sing-along quality hits.  And after only three albums, this band delivers.


The two live tracks are worth a bit of discussion.  “You Don’t Have to Move That Mountain” is a Keith Whitley song that lets Sarah put up her pleasingly bendy voice—a great compromise between Allison Kraus reedy beauty and something more bluesy and scratched.  Nice solos all the way around give you a sense of how a Nickel Creek show is just a little like a jazz concert, with each player taking joy in what they can do with the harmonies and rhythms of a great song.  “The Fox”, a traditional tune, is given a highly non-traditional reading here, with Thile cracking away from the melody and lyrics to lay out Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” word for intricate word.  The band also quotes directly from Bill Monroe and Bach, not to mention “Jungle Boogie”—the kind of show-offy stuff that, in fact, is terrific fun and helps you to realize that this kind of joy requires gigantic talent.


Nickel Creek is a band that has the talent.  It also has looks, which I suppose is the point of the music videos—no fewer than seven soft-focus shorts that make Sarah look apple-cheekedly fetching, make Sean seem like a Sensitive Boy For the 2000s, and make Chris seem like some kind of mandolin-toting Jake Gyllenhaal or Brad Pitt.  Only the most fervent (or, uh, adoring) fans will want to see them, and few will watch them more than once.  But with the price of digitally encoded plastic these days dropping with iPod-rific speed,—what the heck.


This is a collection that makes you hope that Nickel Creek’s “indefinite” hiatus won’t last too long, good as their solo work has been.  The chemistry here works.  It should: they’ve been playing together and even making records since they were little kids.  There’s more work to be done in rescuing pop music from idiocy and in yanking country music fans away from jingoistic bombast.  Nickel Creek, this set argues, is the just the band for both jobs.

Rating:

Will Layman is a writer, teacher and musician living in the Washington, DC area. He is a contributor to National Public Radio and frequently appears as a guest on WNYC's "Soundcheck" as a jazz critic. He plays both funk and jazz in the bars and clubs in and near the nation's capital. His fiction and humor appear in print and online.


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