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(Sugar Hill 3941 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/7/2002)
This is definitely a good time to be bluegrass fan, with the great commercial success of the multiple-Grammy-winning soundtrack from the film O Brother Where Art Thou paving the way for a host of artists, from long-time veterans like Ralph Stanley, to young players to like Alison Krauss and the members of Nickel Creek, to find new audiences, not only for themselves, but for the entire genre. It has been argued that the bluegrass scene was gaining prominence even before the movie, and perhaps the producers of the film just took advantage of that. Indeed, artists like Ricky Skaggs and Dolly Parton decided to re-enter the music of their upbringing, and Alison Krauss had already been enjoying wider popular success than most bluegrass artists long before anyone heard of the Coen Brothers' film. Nickel Creek made had their first national release in early 2000.
Now, two years after their debut, after a pair of solo albums by two of the three Nickel Creekers, and an extended tour, the young band is finally out with a followup to their remarkable eponymous recording. The new release is called This Side, and like their last CD, it's a fascinating and very impressive work.
Chris Thile and siblings Sean and Sara Watkins grew up around Santa Monica, California, and had been friends since childhood. They were enchanted by bluegrass when their parents took them to hear a bluegrass show at a restaurant. They formed the beginnings of the band when they were about 8 and 12 years old, together with Chris' father bassist Scott Thile. A promoter thought it would be an interesting novelty to have a children's bluegrass band touring, and so Nickel Creek were on the road while still in grade school. Now at the ripe old ages of 21 for Chris Thile and Sara Watkins, and 25 for Sean Watkins, their more than a decade together, along with their superb musicianship combine to make the band a most formidable one. And like many young player, their influences are not limited to traditional bluegrass.
It was in the early 1980s when the last great burst of creativity on the bluegrass scene took place, when artists like David Grisman, Sam Bush, Tony Rice, and later Béla Fleck took the acoustic instrumentation of bluegrass and added the musical sophistication of jazz and the eclecticism of rock and created what came to be called "new acoustic music." While some bluegrass traditionalists frowned on the style at first, it proved to be a great fount of creativity and resulted in a lot of memorable music.
Now, we are in another period of innovation in bluegrass, and it's thanks in large part to fiddler Alison Krauss, who has taken the bluegrass song form and changed the texture into a more sophisticated blend, and to the members of Nickel Creek, whose astonishing virtuosity and wide-ranging musical interests have been documented in some excellent albums of their own, and their contributions to the works of others.
In the two years since the CD called Nickel Creek was released, one might expect a young band like this to do some more musical evolution, and indeed that is the case. In fact, in interviews and publicity, perhaps to head off potential complaints from the purists, they no longer refer to the music they do as purely bluegrass. Instead they describe it as "a conglomeration of everything we listen to." Thile likens the process to painting, "What we are trying to do is to grab a really interesting brush and then blend all the various colors -- all the genres of music we love."
The result is a definite creative increment from their last CD -- eclecticism really is the keyword, with a combination of original material, borrowed songs, and fascinating arrangement that run from very sparse to the addition of some electronic effects.
Since their last album, the elder Thile has left the young trio, and they are working with various bass players. For most of the CD, Byron House holds down the instrumental low end. House has become one of the bright lights on the Nashville acoustic scene. Also appearing is Edgar Meyer, the distinctive bassist who divides his time between bluegrass and classical. Otherwise, it's just the Nickel Creek Trio making all the music, with Chris Thile mainly on mandolin, Sean Watkins on guitar, and his sister Sara on fiddle.
And that music is full of interesting turns with very little of it sounding at all like traditional bluegrass. There are some tracks that could be Beatles-influenced pop, some with nearly the complexity of art rock, some with a more contemporary sound, some very pretty slow pieces, and a some that just defy ready categorization. There's also a bit less of the instrumental virtuosity on display, with more emphasis on the songs and their creative arrangements. All three take turns on vocals, though Chris Thile is most often heard in the lead singing position.
Opening the CD, however, is an instrumental piece, called Smoothie Song. It's in the musically wide-ranging tradition of new acoustic music. The Chris Thile composition, though non-electric in instrumentation, definitely has a bit of a rock edge to its rhythm. <<>>
The first of the vocal tracks bears the curious title Spit on a Stranger. The song, written by one Stephen Malkmus can be reminiscent of late-period Beatles, including the little vocal interjections. Definitely not in the traditional bluegrass mold is the electric fuzz guitar. <<>>
One of two tracks on the CD written and sung by Sean Watkins is called Speak. It proves to be a highlight of this uniformly fine album. <<>>
Though there are no drums in bluegrass, Nickel Creek provides some percussion at times by means of hands on the sides of their instruments. That is especially highlighted on the track called Should Have Known Better, written by former Stone Soup lead vocalist Carrie Newcomer. The group's approach to the song is quite fascinating, giving it almost a funky beat, while the group adds some odd, multiply overdubbed violin interjections. <<>>
With the unexpected commercial success of their last album, Nickel Creek's record company released a single from the new CDs. The song they chose is the title track, This Side, which is the closest thing to a pop song the CD has. And for a bluegrass band, it's very close indeed. Though a good composition, it is essentially a rock song done with mostly acoustic instrumentation. It's well performed, but not the strongest track on the album. <<>>
Nickel Creek does include one traditional piece on This Side. House Carpenter is given an almost somber treatment, after others in recent years have often given the song an upbeat approach. It shows the group at their introspective best. <<>>
For me, one of the most attractive songs on the album is the Chris Thile composition Green and Gray. The appealing waltz with interesting lyrics features the bowed bass playing of Edgar Meyer. <<>>
Sara Watkins gets relatively few opportunities for vocals on this CD, but she does a nice job on the Chris Thile co-composition Beauty and the Mess. It's another fascinating piece, both musically and lyrically. <<>>
The CD ends with perhaps its most memorable song lyrically, in Brand New Sidewalk Thile tells the story of a couple of kids putting their hands in the fresh concrete of a new sidewalk, and later returning to the scene for their marriage. It can assume an almost classical sound in spots. <<>>
Nickel Creek's new CD This Side, their second produced by Alison Krauss, underscores the youthful trio's position as one bluegrass' brightest lights. But there are probably going to be some more-conservative fans who will argue that the new release is not true bluegrass. The group would probably not dispute that. They revel in their genre-crossing, boundary-busting eclecticis -- there's even some electrified instrumentation. And This Side marks another stage in the artistic journey these barely twenty-something, but nearly 15-year veterans. Their combination of superb musicianship, adventurousness, and good taste has made for a CD that will likely be counted as another milestone in this great American music, whatever it's called.
Our grade for sound quality is an "A" Ms. Krauss' production is outstanding -- she encourages the group's musical explorations, and helped to keep a nice continuity at the same time. The engineering work by Gary Paczosa in Nashville, who has worked with them before, is very clean and skillfully uses subtle studio effects -- even bringing in the electrified instruments without losing the mainly acoustic texture. The dynamic range -- maintaining the difference between loud and soft -- is fairly decent, in the context of today's overly compressed CDs.
Nickel Creek's 2000 eponymous CD has sold more than 600,000 copies, a rather astonishing accomplishment in the world of bluegrass, even garnering some airplay on commercial country radio stations. And the group did it with no-compromise musicianship -- though their youthful good looks and willingness to do videos didn't hurt. Their new CD has been anxiously awaited. Artistically, it is a triumph. And who knows, it might even even introduce more of the general public to the joys of acoustic eclecticism.
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