Nickel Creek – A Dotted Line
“It’s one of those endings / Where no one claps ‘cause they’re sure that there’s more”
The opening track of Nickel Creek’s comeback album clearly references the band’s long hiatus. The band amicably went their separate ways in 2007, vowing one day to reunite. However, as the years went by, any reunion looked more and more doubtful, as the band’s breakout star Chris Thile had so many other projects to fill his time. There was solo material, a whole new band, and even an unlikely-seeming collaboration with the classical cellist Yo Yo Ma.
However, Thile clearly didn’t let his new friends, nor even his MacArthur Genius Grant, distract him from his roots. On this the bands 25 anniversary, they have finally reunited for an album and American tour. If all this makes them sound like old fogies, don’t be fooled; the former child prodigies of Nickel Creek are still in their thirties, and still have a lot of musical vitality.
Musically, it’s like the band have never been away. Their acoustic sound is still the paragon of Newgrass music, which is basically acoustic pop but without the guilt. One of the great strengths of the band is that all three members contribute to the song-writing and singing, meaning there is much more diversity than you find with many groups. Thile and Sara Watkins’ voices are still as childlike as ever, giving their songs of lost love a sense of youthful folly, rather than lasting pain. Only Sean Watkins, the oldest member of the group, really brings gravitas to his vocal delivery. Instrumentally, the band is stronger than ever. The mandolin virtuoso Thile doesn’t dominate, leaving room for Sean’s crisp acoustic guitar, and Sara’s mournful violin (sorry, “fiddle”).
Although it’s admirable that their sound is still intact after their time apart, it may be the album’s biggest weakness. It’s so similar to their previous albums that fans might question if they have anything new to offer. Only “Hayloft”, a cover of a song by the Canadian indie band Mother Mother, is a major departure from what they’ve recorded in the past. They keep the original’s dance-y rhythm, but with their acoustic instruments, turn it into some approaching Mellow Gold-era Beck.
“May 21st” is another standout song. At first it may sound like a typical evangelical ballad, but it’s actually of a clever parody of the religious doom-monger Harold Camping. The song demonstrates the band’s nuanced relationship with Christianity. All the band members are Christians, but they are not truly a “Christian band” in that they don’t push any kind of agenda. There is no evangelising, and certainly no moralising. Even the song “Christmas Eve” doesn’t touch on the religious aspects of the holiday.
Newcomers to the band will find this an enjoyable slice of modern Bluegrass, but fans who have been waiting with baited breath since 2007 might consider it a little disappointing. At only ten tracks, including two instrumentals, it might not satiate their appetites. Let’s hope it’s simply the tentative beginnings of a more rewarding era to come.