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The Graham Album Review #2151

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Nickel Creek: Celebrants

(Independent release, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/5/2023)

It was forty years ago, in the early 1980s, that what would be called New Acoustic music began to appear, originated by artists like David Grisman, Sam Bush and the late Tony Rice, New Acoustic took the instrumentation of bluegrass and added a considerably wider range of influences, with a good deal of jazz. A lot of the bluegrass traditionalists objected, but it eventually became mainstream. Twenty years later, in the early 2000s, a further generation of acoustic artists began to emerge, who built on the eclecticism of the New Acoustic cohorts and brought their own twist to the music, often with a combination of impressive musicianship with more of a song structure. One of the important groups of the New New Acoustic movement, is Nickel Creek, a trio of family and friends. They have been playing together since childhood, with their first gig in 1989, when their oldest member, Sean Watkins, was just 12, and fiddler Sara Watkins, Sean’s sister, and mandolin player Chris Thile, were just 8. After a couple of independent albums in the 1990s, The band had their breakout release in 2000, with an eponymous album produced by Alison Krauss.

The group performed regularly, but the members have had solo careers, with Chris Thile recording several solo albums, founding the Punch Brothers, and serving as host of Public Radio’s Live from Here, and collaborated with classical cellist Yo Yo Ma, fiddler Stuart Duncan and bassist Edgar Meyer, in two highly creative albums under the name Goat Rodeo Project. Along the way, Thile won a MacArthur so-called “genius” award. Sarah Watkins has been part of the trio I’m With Her with Aoife O’Donovan, while Sean Watkins has released a pair of solo albums.

Now Nickel Creek are out with Celebrants, their first album together since 2014. With members on opposite coasts, they did not have many opportunities to perform together, but while Thile was hosting Live from Here his Nickel Creek colleagues were regular guests, and Thile had a feature he called “song of the week,” in which he wrote a new song for each show, and the Watkinses often participated.

Now on Celebrants, Nickel Creek reunite and collaborate in the writing of most of the songs, and show their musical evolution since nine years ago. The result is a fascinating hour-long opus of 18 songs, some of which are interconnected, and they reprise themes and make new variations on them. Celebrants is hardly bluegrass in any traditional sense. I would characterize the new album as progressive rock on acoustic instruments, with every tune showing elaborate arrangements with complex harmonies, tricky tempos and shifts in dynamics. Lyrically, the album also multilayered. Joining Thile and the Watkinses is bassist Mike Elizando, who worked with Thile on the Live from Here radio show.

The album opens with its title song Celebrants which typifies the album’s fascinating musical complexity, and celebrates the band’s reunion. <<>>

Along the same lines lyrically in Strangers again about getting together with after being apart for too long a time. <<>>

The Meadow is a sort of a love song with another what I suppose could be called “prog-grass” arrangement. <<>>

There are a couple of instrumentals on the album. One of them is called Going Out which has a kind of joyful sound with an almost symphonically complex arrangement. <<>>

On the other hand, with a more laid back sound is Holding Pattern another roundabout love song. <<>>

Taking almost a rock direction is Where the Long Line Leads with a vocal by Ms. Watkins, whose message seems to be carpe diem, seize the day. <<>>

Sean Watkins does the lead vocals on Stone’s Throw whose message seems to be “you can count on me,” despite whatever happened. <<>>

As traveling musicians, who have spent a lot of time in airports, Nickel Creek pays tribute to those TSA screeners on a song called To the Airport.

The album ends with perhaps its most elaborate piece Failure Isn’t Forever with more of the group’s mind-bogglingly intricate arrangement to lyrics that imbue optimism <<>>

Nickel Creek’s new album Celebrants is a showcase for remarkable level of musicianship and eclecticism that this trio has achieved. Playing together since before adolescence Chris Thile, Sara Watkins and Sean Watkins have not made an album together in nine years. But when they did get together, sometimes on Chris Thile’s radio show, and post pandemic, the creative juices flowed in what seems more like a torrent in this generous album of progressive acoustic music, about as far from traditional bluegrass as one can get, but a delight for those with open ears, and musicianship to make your jaw drop.

Our grade for sound quality is about “B.” There is too much volume compression especially on the vocals, which lack the clarity befitting an acoustic group. Perhaps intentionally, it’s mixed like a rock album.

Back in 2000, Nickel Creek’s debut album was the opening for a new generation of acoustic artists. Now, 23 years later, they are still at the top of their game and blazing new trails.

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