One of the most welcomed surprises late last year was the news that Nickel Creek, easily my favorite acoustic band, were reuniting to record their first album of all-new material in nine years. Produced by Eric Valentine, the mastermind behind Why Should The Fire Die, the project marks their twenty-fifth anniversary as a band.
Whenever an act disbands, especially in the prime of their abilities, there’s always a sadness marked by countless ‘what could’ve been’ thoughts had they stayed together. But more now than ever, it’s easy to see that the members of Nickel Creek (Chris Thile, Sara Watkins, and Sean Watkins) were more than just members of a group, but rather vibrant solo artists who needed to explore life apart from the musical force that had guided their lives since they were teenagers. Their personal growth away from Nickel Creek has been extraordinary; with solo projects and other unique ventures serving to further hone their creative geniuses and better inform them as a band now that they’ve reunited.
Our first taste of their reinvigoration came from “Destination,” the fiery Sara Watkins-led first single. The track is an outstanding addition to their legacy and perfectly matches Thile’s rip-roaring mandolin with Watkins’ smoky yet biting vocal. Two more songs were released in advance of the album – “Love Of Mine,” a gorgeous ballad led by Thile’s mandolin and Watkins’ fiddle and “21 of May,” a crisp traditional bluegrass number showcasing Sean’s glorious talents with acoustic guitar. The latter is my favorite of three, and one of their greatest performances as a band. Rarely have they ever sounded this tightly engaged.
As far as Nickel Creek albums go, A Dotted Line is a fairly conventional set, with relatively few stylistic surprises. That’s a good thing, though, as the music is allowed to stand for itself without too much experimentation getting the best of them. As far as progressive bluegrass bands go, they show why they’re the best of the bunch on “Rest of My Life,” a soaring ballad showcasing the high lonesome side of Thile’s voice in marriage with his signature crashing mandolin picking. He takes the lead again on the excellent rapid-fire “You Don’t Know What’s Going On,” a stunningly aggressive number with a punkish attitude and enduring angry rock sensibility. If only all such songs would sound like this.
“Where Is Love Now,” a Sam Phillips cover, finds Sara singing lead once again, with a delicate ballad that gives her room to breathe. As a vocalist, Watkins is a curious case in that her voice is often obstructed by production (especially on Sun Midnight Sun) that drowns her out. She has the ability to keep up with muscular production, “Destination” is a good example of this, but on lush ballads Thile’s mandolin and Sean’s acoustic guitar is the right amount of production to let her shine. What I love the most here is how the song rolls along conventionally until the chorus, when the three-part harmony kicks in beautifully, allowing the track to soar to new heights.
“Christmas Eve” is the rare moment Sean sings lead, and he more than holds his own with the story of a guy pleading with his girl not end their relationship. The track distinguishes itself in lyric alone, as it’s the most story-centric number on A Dotted Line. There’s a tinge of sadness in Watkins’ vocal that mares his conviction, but it works in allowing him to lay open his broken heart. “Christmas Eve” is skillfully subtle in all the right ways.
In contrast to the rest of the album, the band gives us one track brazenly unafraid to reimagine the definition of what a Nickel Creek song can sound like. “Hayloft” is a duet between Sara and Thile where they assume the rolls of a couple being chased by her disapproving father (“My daddy’s got a gun,” wails Watkins in the refrain). The track, originally done by Mother Mother, an indie rock band from British Columbia, is wacky, nonsensical, and the album’s standout number simply for daring to be different. I wanted to hate it, but Watkins infuses it with the personality she brought to her solo albums and its so endearing that the proceedings are nothing less than charming. If Watkins hadn’t made those two solo albums, I doubt “Hayloft” would even exist – her growth and newfound confidence as a musical being is astounding.
As if eight lyrical numbers weren’t enough, we’re also gifted two instrumentals that are as excellent as anything on A Dotted Line. “Elsie” is a strong mandolin and fiddle ballad that rolls along quite nicely while “Elephant In The Corn” picks up the tempo a bit and features a wonderful acoustic guitar breakdown from Sean. I’m not usually one to go crazy for instrumentals, preferring songs with lyrics, but these are excellent.
So, after nine years, was A Dotted Line worth the wait? More than anyone involved in its creation will ever know. With the rise in popularity of Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers, I’m come to appreciate Nickel Creek (and Thile’s other band The Punch Brothers) even more because they approach their music from a bluegrass and not rock perspective.
With purely acoustic instruments and lush not aggressive vocals, they make this acoustic progressive bluegrass the way it’s supposed to sound. That they do it with exceptional lyrical compositions is just an added bonus. Their asaterical lyrics have always been their downfall, but they’ve grown by leaps and bounds as writers on A Dotted Lineas well as singers and musicians. Lets hope it’s not another nine years before we’re gifted with their next set of new music.