The newgrass wunderkinds make a strong bid for pop stardom without sacrificing too much of their purity.
Nickel Creek is the top band in the world of a particular kind, and what they are doing -- particularly on this bold, occasionally flawed record -- is flat-out exciting. Second generation "newgrass" has never seemed more lush, more thick with possibility, or more untrimmed around the edges.
The first, self-titled Nickel Creek album was a particular kind of sensation. Chris Thile, Sara Watkins and brother Sean Watkins were child stars on the country/bluegrass scene, kids who had won picking contests and the like and who, together, formed a band that any parent could love. Produced by Alison Krauss, the disc was largely traditional (and half instrumental), and was plugged, among other places, on Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion and in the pages of the New York Times. Died-in-the-wool bluegrass fans could rejoice: "These kids, they play our music the old way but still -- they sing angelically!
Who was prepared, then, when the first track on their sophomore release (This Side, from 2002) was the Pavement song "Spit on a Stranger"? I mean, who did these kids think they were -- independent musicians short of stultifying middle age?
Needless to say, This Side suffered some critical jabs, but I have no doubt that Thile and the Watkins siblings didn't care one whit. Each very talented, they all have long careers ahead of them. O Brother, Where Art Thou? may have given suburband folks a taste for old-timey music, but these kids were born during the Reagan administration -- they've gotta make some pop music while the pop music-makin' is still good.
And with this record, Why Should the Fire Die?, they have done exactly that.
Though Nickel Creek remains with the small, bluegrass-specialty label Sugar Hill, this disc was not produced by Ms. Krauss but by Eric Valentine and Tony Berg, whose credits include Queens of the Stone Age, Good Charlotte, Michael Penn, and Aimee Mann. And those reference points will give you some triangulation on what this disc contains: some bluegrass, some power pop, and a healthy dose of singer-songwritery indie-folk. It mostly works, however, because the through-lines of the record are so strong -- particularly the core, drumless sound of mandolin, guitar, fiddle and bass working together as one. Whatever else comes and goes on this disc, Nickel Creek is always a terrific ensemble.
But what will grab you first about the band this time out is their singing. The trio has always sung in gorgeously arrayed harmonies, but Why Should the Fire Die? utilizes sung harmony in striking ways. "Evelyne" is a deep track loosely based on a James Joyce short story ("Evelyne grips the railing/ As her lover calls her to the sea") that uses complex three-part harmony throughout. It's a song rife with impressionistic chords that move in unusual directions, suggesting jazz pianist Bill Evans or Debussy more than the Stanley Brothers. The back end of "Can't Complain", the choruses and last verse on "Jealous of the Moon", and plenty of other songs contain the kind of immediately identifiable group singing that allows you to recognize this as "Nickel Creek music" from an alt-country mile.
The effect of the new producers is clear from the first sounds on the record. "When in Rome" opens with a sound effect and then Thile's solo mandolin, both sounding like they're coming through an old radio. Full fidelity and the whole band then enter together, with Thile's choked lead vocal is held back in the mix. The band -- only the four pieces (with acoustic bass but no drums) -- sounds huge and, actually, rocking. Supplemented by foot stomps and a recording style that emphasizes rhythm, this first track clearly signals the band's ambition to go further beyond the folk-country market.
"Best of Luck" is a highly successful stride in that direction. Starting with a rock strumming figure and more foot stomps, the tune (co-written by the whole band) sounds like it could be something from the New Pornographers or Juliana Hatfield. Over an array of percussive sounds from feet on the floor and hands on guitar bodies, Sara Watkins enters with a lead vocal well beyond her usual ethereal folk sound, singing about a relationship that has failed and then tragically revived in some odd way. It's hardly the stuff of mountain music, and it's great. Thile's "Helena" is similarly produced like a rock song. It starts small, but then the mandolin strumming develops into a straight-eighths rock pattern, and you know what's coming. While the songs moves back and forth between bombast and delicacy, it eventually builds to prog-rock intensity as the drums (Drums! On a bluegrass album!) enter and the arrogant but angry narrator ("Guys like me/ Never sleep alone at night/ I don't need your sympathy") explodes.
But Nickel Creek also delivers more traditional pleasures. "Jealous of the Moon" (co-written by Thile with the Jayhawks' Gary Louris) is country-tinged folk that would have been equally at home on a James Taylor or Eagles record. Sara's take on Dylan's "Tomorrow is a Long Time" is breathy perfection, particularly during the instrumental break, which blends written ensemble passages and improvisation in a seamless whole. Thile's lead on his "Doubting Thomas" is sung with pleading wonder and sports a bridge that most songwriters would purchase with their souls. Sean's lead on his "Somebody More Like You" makes you pine for more of his singing -- direct and seemingly sincere until the cutting narrator says, "I hope you meet someone your height so you can see eye to eye / with someone as small as you". Though the song seems to feature some sort of electric mandolin ("mandola"?), it is folk-pop grace.
The album provides a fairly generous dose of three instrumentals. "Scotch & Chocolate" begins with a chamber sound before moving into a fast breakdown that will pull the corners of your mouth right up, even as it takes a few jazzy turns. "Stumptown" is an even straighter feature for Thile's mandolin prowess, though the whole band shines. "First and Last Waltz" sounds like something else entirely, with the producers' mitts all over it -- echo-chambered and washed with effects and violin tones, it seems a curious misfire.
The album contains a handful of other just-off-the-mark tracks. Sara's "Anthony" is a period exercise, mixing old-timey theater music with processed lead vocals. It seems like Nickel Creek's attempt to score a Beatles-y coup like "When I'm Sixty-Four", but instead it sound like an aborted out-take from an Erin McKeown disc. "Can't Complain" is the one-too-many Thile tune about screwed-up relationships, and is the rarity here -- a song with a too-plain melody. More than once, I wished that the band's instrumental and improvisational prowess had been cut loose more fully -- to have a phenom like Thile and not let him do his "Charlie Parker of the Mandolin" routine at least once seems a waste. And the final (title) track is a gorgeously sung waltz, but it seems an odd choice to conclude a record that is so often bidding for the true fun of pop music.
So, no doubt some are going to run this album down as merely a pop album. The moms and dads who loved that first Nickel Creek record are going to frown, the doubts that were stirred by This Side confirmed. But for people closer in age to the musicians, I think this is a slightly flawed triumph -- a pop album that draws its strength from bluegrass verities transformed
And why shouldn't Nickel Creek truly "make it"? Chris Thile is a front man and heartthrob -- tall and thin with a penetrating and reedy tenor that tingles the ladies for sure. Sean Watkins is the "George" of the group -- quieter, with a true and pure singing voice, and a knack for writing the most memorable songs. And Sara Watkins is a sweet-faced and honey-voiced girl-next-door with piquant technique on fiddle. If a group of 25-year-olds ever deserved to make a bunch of money and get famous for their music, it's surely Nickel Creek.
On the basis of this record, I'm rooting for them to knock America's socks off.