by George Graham
(Sugar Hill 3909 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/26/2000)
We are definitely in another of those periodic phases of the pop music scene, in which teenage stars and their fans seem to dominate. Most of today's teen pop bands seem to be manufactured by music business marketing people and hit-hungry producers, with not much talent or originality being shown. While there have been some significant and ultimately durable teen-age performers in the past including Elvis Presley, Steve Winwood, Stevie Wonder, Janis Ian, and Richard Thompson to name a few, today's lightweight musical fluff acts like N'Sync and Britney Spears tend to make one wonder about the musical state of affairs and young people's tastes in general. And at the other end of the spectrum, one has the misanthropic so-called alternative rock of bands like Limp Bizkit, selling huge numbers of records, which can also encourage pessimism in the long-time musical observer. But just when one is ready to is ready to sound like one's parents and say that they just don't make good music any more, along comes a brilliant young group to give one great hope for the musical world. In this case, it's a quartet, three of whose members range in age from 18 to 23, who play some of the finest progressive bluegrass you'll hear anywhere.
The group and album are both called Nickel Creek, and this is actually their second release, though their first with national distribution.
Nickel Creek consists of members of two families originally from Santa Monica, California. Sarah Watkins started playing fiddle at age 6, and became the Arizona State bluegrass fiddle champion by age 15. Her brother Sean plays guitar and also was a champion player at an early age -- winning the National Flatpicking Championship in 1993 at age 16. Their friend Chris Thile is a mandolinist who met the Watkinses in 1990 and has also been making a name for himself. At age 19, he already has two solo albums out, and played his instrument with both Dolly Parton and Hootie & the Blowfish. Rounding out the group is Chris' father Scott Thile on bass. In 1997 Nickel Creek released a self-produced CD called Here to There, and have since been signed to the respected bluegrass label Sugar Hill. For the album Nickel Creek they enlisted another bluegrass prodigy, Alison Krauss, as producer and the result is a remarkable record. In some ways Ms. Krauss' influence can be heard in the sophisticated arrangements and gentle vocals, along with a reliance on songs that are not strictly bluegrass pieces. Indeed, thanks to Ms. Krauss and artists like Tim O'Brien, bluegrass has now become a great medium for high-quality songwriting.
Nickel Creek as a band is impressive in almost every way. The musicianship is stellar, but without fancy picking for its own sake. The original material is rather sophisticated, including instrumentals with complex meter changes, and songs with interesting lyrics. Both Chris Thile and Sara Watkins are very appealing as vocalists, with a style that is more like the introspective singer-songwriter than the typical high-lonesome tenor of bluegrass, again showing their influence by people like Ms. Krauss and Tim O'Brien, one of whose tunes they include. Also interesting is that despite Nickel Creek's vocal strength, fully a third of this twelve-song CD consists of instrumentals, most by Chris Thile. The absence of a banjo and the almost classical style of Ms. Watkins' fiddle give Nickel Creek a decidedly more mellow, sophisticated sound than traditional bluegrass, which is further enhanced by their often subtle arrangements. The result is a CD that should appeal as much to fans of thoughtful singer-songwriters as to the fancier of bluegrass and New Acoustic music.
The CD begins with one of Chris Thile's instrumentals, Ode to a Butterfly, whose buoyant melodic line and shifting rhythms suggest the flight of a the colorful insect. <<>>
That is followed by one of the vocals by Chris Thile. The Lighthouse's Tale is a piece whose very attractive arrangement and vocals belie some tragic lyrics about a lighthouse keeper whose true love sailed, but perished in a shipwreck near his lighthouse. <<>>
Sara Watkins' vocals are featured in a song co-written by her guitarist brother Sean, Reasons Why. It's anything but traditional bluegrass with its slightly funky rhythm and somewhat bittersweet and philosophical lyrics. The song is a real gem. <<>>
The instrumental highlight of the album is a piece called In the House of Tom Bombadil after a character in The Lord of the Rings. The composition by Chris Thile zigzags in and out of a seven-beat meter while keeping the group's trademark melodic sound, and giving a Thile a great opportunity to show his fleetness on the mandolin. <<>>
When You Come Back Down is a song by Tim O'Brien, written with Danny O'Keefe, a significant songwriting figure on the West Coast during the 1970s. Chris Thile does the lead vocal in this very nice love song. <<>>
There are a couple of traditional pieces on the CD, but usually with a twist. Sweet Afton is based on the Robert Burns poem, which has also been well-known as a traditional song. But Chris Thile writes an entirely new melody, with very satisfying results. <<>>
The group does another creative rendition of a traditional piece on Cuckoo's Nest, done as an instrumental with just the youngsters, with the senior Thile sitting this one out. Their performance resembles an Irish reel, and again the musicianship is outstanding. <<>>
With a different musical mood is the instrumental by Sean Watkins called Robin and Marian, inspired by Robin Hood and Maid Marian, musically implying days of the castles and bands of merry men. <<>>
Perhaps the closest thing to a straight bluegrass arrangement is The Fox, a clever setting of the traditional nursery rhyme. <<>>
Sean Watkins co-wrote with one David Pickett another set of interesting and somewhat unconventional lyrics. The Hand Song weaves a kind of parable around a child hurting his hands on the thorns of roses in an attempt to his mother a gift of the flowers. Sean's sister Sara again does a nice job with the vocal.
Nickel Creek, the new recording by the bluegrass quartet of the same name, is a downright superb album marked by great musicianship, very appealing vocals, creative arrangements, excellent material and above all a sense of tastefulness that belies the young age of the three principal members. Over the years, the bluegrass field has attracted teen-aged prodigies, including such notable figures as Béla Fleck, and Alison Krauss, who produced this CD. There are three in Nickel Creek, but perhaps more impressive than their instrumental prowess is the fact that these college-aged players show such musical tastefulness and maturity, concentrating their efforts on the overall presentation of the songs, rather than just doing fancy picking for its own sake. And they come up with some fine material. Interestingly, the group continues despite the fact that the Thile family moved from California to Kentucky.
In terms of sound quality, I'll give this CD gets a solid grade "A." The acoustic instruments are well-recorded, capturing a lot of subtlety, the vocals are very pleasing, and the CD has a commendable dynamic range. Kudos to engineer Gary Paczona.
Nickel Creek may be a bluegrass group in instrumentation, but their CD is likely to have wide appeal to fans of good singer-songwriters and just about anyone who enjoys sophisticated, melodic music. If one is inclined to get discouraged with the media saturated by teenaged tripe like N' Sync, Nickel Creek provides the perfect antidote, giving one real hope for the future of music. Nickel Creek's new release is a real highlight of the year so far, and would be impressive by artists of any age.
(c) Copyright 2000 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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