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(Sugar Hill 3976 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/20/2004)
Bluegrass is certainly enjoying a revival in popularity, reaching its highest level of public awareness in decades. And one of the brightest lights on the bluegrass scene is the band Nickel Creek. Formed in California, the group features a pair of siblings and a family friend who had been playing together since childhood. They are still quite young and bring together a remarkable degree of instrumental virtuosity with considerable eclecticism to create a very appealing sound which has actually found its way into the commercial country scene from time to time.
While all three of the founding members, Sara and Sean Watkins and Chris Thile are outstanding musicians in their own right, mandolinist Thile has perhaps become the most prominent in his collaborations with artists like Béla Fleck, Dolly Parton and others. He certainly qualifies as something of a prodigy. He started seriously on the mandolin at age 5, and released his first CD at age 12. Now at about age 23, Thile is out with his latest solo project called Deceiver, on which his eclecticism has extended to the point that almost no one could call this a bluegrass album.
Thile's last solo release was a kind of showcase for the New Acoustic sound, with the instrumentation of bluegrass performing music whose stylistic influences ran far and wide, and with prominent guest appearances by banjo man Fleck. In 2003 Thile also recorded a mandolin duet album with Mike Marshall, one of the pioneers in the New Acoustic style, going back to the late 1970s.
Thile's Deceiver really is a solo album. The liner notes indicate that he played all the instruments, including keyboards and drums and occasionally overdubbed a chorus of vocals. In addition to his mandolin, he also played some electric guitar, or perhaps it's a mandolin, plugged in, cranked up and run through a distortion box. And the music, all original compositions, spans edgy rock to almost classical in sound, largely bypassing the familiar bluegrass trademarks. But there are also a couple of solo mandolin instrumentals. As he as demonstrated on his previous releases, and with Nickel Creek, Thile is an appealing vocalist, sounding more like a high-tenor singer-songwriter or mellow rocker than a high-lonesome bluegrass singer. Lyrically, he is becoming an interesting writer, penning some occasionally cryptic lyrics, many of them love songs, but others open to interpretation.
The CD opens with one of Thile's typically eclectic tracks, The Wrong Idea, a kind of love song in which the girl is apparently under age. The approach is almost theatrical, and full of unexpected sonic touches. The result is fascinating and ends up, like most of this album being quite original. <<>>
The following track On Ice sounds like something that could be performed by Nickel Creek, with the mostly acoustic instrumentation and the complex arrangement. <<>> I say mostly acoustic until near the end when Thile cranks it up. <<>>
One of the most unexpected tracks on this variegated recording is a song called Locking Doors, which ventures off into a funk beat while Thile also throws in a string quartet which he presumably plays by himself. <<>>
On an album of relatively short tracks, the lengthiest is one called I'm Nowhere and You're Everything. And as is typical for this CD, the piece defies ready category. It's a creative and successful blend, mixing Thile's bluegrassy mandolin with very wide-ranging set of influences though which the song passes. <<>>
There are pair of mandolin solos, which despite the wide-ranging content of the CD are, in my mind, definite highlights. Waltz for Dewayne Pomeroy is a very pretty composition played with a lot of subtlety and class, hinting as it does of the classical style. <<>>
On the other hand, the rockiest track is Empire Falls, which seems as if it would fit into the alternative pop world. It works surprisingly well. <<>>
Thile's most interesting lyrics on the CD come on The Believer, a track that also runs toward the rock at times. The words are presumably about relationship, but they could be interpreted in any number of ways, including, perhaps, in the world of politics. <<><
Thile shows a little Beatles influence in the song This Is All Real, in which he is featured on that very un-bluegrass-like instrument the piano. The result is another pleasant surprise. <<>>
Nickel Creek mandolinist Chris Thile has created a thoroughly fascinating album that is anything but bluegrass. He explores a lot of musical territory and instruments very creatively, and is generally quite successful in his musical amalgams. But this is not an album likely to appeal to the bluegrass purist, many of whom decry any deviation from the traditional. And with Thile's name associated with bluegrass, the CD is probably not likely to generate a lot of awareness in the rock world. But listened to with an open mind, The Deceiver is a very satisfying and enjoyable recording that may well appeal to Nickel Creek's fans, given that they probably have wider ranging tastes than typical bluegrass diehards.
I have two small quibbles with the CD. One is that it's very short, under 35 minutes long, though that is often true for bluegrass albums, full as they are of two-to-three minute songs. The other, as usual, is with the audio quality. The recording captures well the textures of the many instrumental colors, and some of the multiply overdubbed work is impressive, but the dynamic range is restricted by an inappropriate amount of volume compression for this kind of music.
Nickel Creek remains one of the most impressive bands on the contemporary bluegrass scene, while their mandolinist has taken to exploring a lot of new ground and showing considerable versatility, through his playing all the instruments on the recording, and impressive originality. It's an worthwhile CD that really does defy category.
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