Monday, August 18, 2014

"I guess the show's going on": album review of Nickel Creek: A Dotted Line

Image from Amazon

Well, they're back. I'll be the first to admit I didn't think this record would happen—at least not anytime soon. After various solo and group projects (including Sara Watkin's Sun Midnight Sun and various Punch Brothers' albums), Nickel Creek—surprise!—has returned from their hiatus with a new album and tour. Despite the success of Chris Thile's Punch Brothers and various other solo albums, he has yet to reach the popularity of Nickel Creek at their peak, suggesting that collaborating with Sean and Sara Watkins brings something out of Chris that appeals to a wider audience. I do think it shows some humility on Chris's part to take a step back and let other people have the spotlight after being the most successful soloist of the trio. I wrote recently about Nickel Creek's first three albums, the history behind them, and the term Newgrass with which they've been labeled, and today I'll review their new album, A Dotted Line. Can this album live up to the genius of the previous three albums?

For this album, Sean and Chris seem to share the bulk of the songwriting (all three are listed on the music credits for the original songs, but lyrics are attributed individually), though Sara did pen the lead single "Destination." Sean's songs are more in the tradition of classic bluegrass than Chris's, but even with the modern twists (like the ironic "21st of May", about a preacher proclaiming the date of the second coming), I think they are good enough to become classics. Chris' songs ("Rest of my Life," "Elsie," "You Don't Know What's Going On") are much less traditional than Sean's, but perhaps less experimental than Chris's recent work. "Rest of my Life" is a fitting start for the album, a song contemplating starting over after finishing something big. Although Sara Watkin's solo record showed that she is the least talented of the three creatively (and she takes a secondary role in creation here) her violin and vocal prowess (especially in the cover "Where is Love Now?") contribute greatly to the album.

"Elephant in the Corn" is classic Nickel Creek—taking the stylings of bluegrass and twisting them just enough that it's refreshing but still in the same genre. The song changes moods several of times, of course with with a languorous bass solo by Edgar Meyer. The title gives it away—instead of "Turkey in the Straw," this instrumental track features an exotic animal in a bluegrass setting. As fun as "Hayloft" is (and they seem to have the most fun doing other people's songs), I was disappointed that they turned to electronics for this cover, especially considering the group's previous successful forays into the acoustification of electronic music, though the electronics were mostly limited to one riff.

I think A Dotted Line is an apt title. While Nickel Creek continues to encircle bluegrass, keeping roots there, the dotted boarder allows other influences to get in and out. The album has the charm of bluegrass, but with more complexity and quirkiness. A Dotted Line has all the things we've come to expect from Nickel Creek: modern lyrics that twist bluegrass themes, interesting textures, unexpected chords, irregular phrase lengths, and complex forms. We can't predict what will happen in the song , but looking back after listening, we can tell they are tightly constructed.

Is this album on par with the other Nickel Creek albums? It took me a couple of listens to really get into it, and I don't think it has quite the charm, power, catchiness, or novelty of the previous records, but still I think it's a solid effort. All three are great vocalists AND instrumentalists, which is not something that happens much in groups, and they show off both here. None of the songs are throw-aways, and strangely many often get more interesting near their end. Mostly, it's great to hear these childhood friends making music again.

What did you think of the album?

Vocab: theme, texture, phrase

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