Call it the fortuitous side of fad and fashion, but newgrass newcomers Nickel Creek don’t have to look much further than O Brother, Where Art Thou? to understand the recent groundswell of support for their music. Building on the fleeting notoriety that often comes with such flashes of recognition, the fresh-faced Southern California folk trio’s sophomore effort, This Side, is a progressive patchwork of folk, pop, and bluegrass that represents a step away from such traditional sounds.
Like a fine wine, bluegrass performers only get better with age. If any proof is needed, just pick up Ralph Stanley’s or Dolly Parton’s latest offerings. While Nickel Creek’s Chris Thile, Sara Watkins, and Sean Watkins — 21, 21, and 25 respectively — may not have the same benefits of experience and carefully aged artistic instincts, they certainly have the maturity of technique and instrumental proficiency that the genre and its audience prize so highly.
Formed nearly 12 years ago, Nickel Creek knows a thing or two about the extensive U.S. folk circuit that stretches from coast to coast, having performed at a number of the top folk and bluegrass festivals held each year. With multiple appearances at the prestigious Strawberry Music Festival in Northern California as well as the Walnut Valley Music Festival in Winfield, Kansas, it’s amazing to think that the three have been playing together since the youngest among them was eight years old.
Produced by “Down from the Mountain” maven Alison Krauss, This Side proves to be an ambitious move for the group. Tracks like “Spit on a Stranger”, “Young”, and the disc’s title track “This Side” strike a decidedly pop pose. Though such departures never lose sight of the band’s gift for lush vocal harmonies and its core instrumentation of mandolin, guitar, and fiddle, at times the simplicity of the music is lost in the novelty of some heavy-handed arranging. “Green and Gray”, a cut that contains perhaps the most eloquent lyrics on the disc, nearly collapses under the weight of such orchestrated excesses, including a menacingly determined string section and a barrage of tympanic bravado.
Instead, the group sounds comfortably at ease with This Side‘s more traditionally flavored offerings. Their retelling of the British folk ballad “House Carpenter” ranks as one of the disc’s most poignant moments. Likewise, “Beauty and the Mess” strikes a clear and sincere tone as it leans closer to the band’s modest roots.
In the haste to make an all-encompassing statement, Nickel Creek sacrifices a little too much simplicity. While This Side may be an accurate depiction of the band’s wide array of musical influences, it loses its way more than just a few times. Though such statements are often necessary, these exercises often come at the sake of a clear sense of direction. While no one is expecting the group to redefine the scope of traditional folk and bluegrass music — though they show occasional flashes of being able to accomplish just that — hopefully Nickel Creek can manage to find a way to synthesize something that defines a consistent sound for themselves.