Nickel Creek: Better together than apart. That’s for sure. They certainly can’t be blamed for wanting to take some time for themselves when they announced back in 2006 that they’d be going on an indefinite hiatus. What a wild ride they’d endured; starting off in a pizza joint when the oldest member of the trio was only twelve, to getting swept up in the whole bluegrass craze that ushered in the 2000’s on the heels of O’ Brother and Alison Krauss producing a Grammy-nominated album for them. Brother and sister Sean and Sara Watkins, and Chris Thile are lifers, but they needed to take some time to discover life beyond each other.
From a very young age, the trio found themselves in a scenario indicative of many bluegrass prodigies: home schooling, music camps, grueling practice routines, out-of-town performance trips in the parents’ conversion vans, and a perspective on the outside looking in to what normal life entailed. Then they rose to the very top of their craft as one of the most critically-acclaimed progressive bluegrass outfits of our time. After their Farewell (For Now) Tour in 2007, Chris Thile, Sara Watkins, and Sean Watkins no longer need the Nickel Creek name to make it through life—their names now carried enough weight on their own. But what made Nickel Creek so successful in a discipline so crowded with world-class talent is how well the individual parts of Nickel Creek compliment each other.
Chris Thile’s post Nickel Creek project called The Punch Brothers was the perfect forum for this mandolin genius to let his creativity flow unfettered, and it did so in a project that tested the very boundaries of what bluegrass could be. But Thile isn’t for everyone. At the helm of such brilliance, he can get wrapped up in the pursuit of challenging and impressing himself to the point where his music can come across as too heady and esoteric for the common, or even the advanced ear.
Sara Watkins on the other hand is the one who possesses the sensibility that helps balance Thile’s brilliance into music that can win wide appeal. Her ability to craft melodies that are both deft and catchy, and bringing the softness of a female voice to a composition is what made her self-titled solo album, and the followup Sun Midnight Sun so appealing to people beyond the bluegrass realm.
Sean Watkins is the rock; the solution that can resolve Thile and Sara’s natural musical conflict into something where the sum equals something greater than the parts. Sean also possesses one of the best ears in music—one that can hear the magnetism behind an indie rock song and how to translate it into the string band concept. His work with the supergroup Works Progress Administration showed his talents can be fluid and find a home in virtually any vessel.
But maybe it took Nickel Creek’s separation to truly realize the virtues each player possessed, both as a listener, and for the player’s themselves. With lessons learned and life beyond Nickel Creek explored, they can come together once again to create fellowship through music and share it with an audience hungry from the seven year hiatus.
A Dotted Line very much starts where Nickel Creek left off—bravely challenging the conventions and boundaries of bluegrass with not just a progressive approach, but an aggressive approach that delivers thought-provoking composition and instrumentation, dazzling just as much from its acrobatic adeptness as it does from its infectiousness. The first single from the album called “Destination” is Nickel Creek doing what they do best: starting off with a sumptuous melody from Sara Watkins, with harmonies blended effortlessly by the boys to draw you in, to then deliver the substance of a well-crafted song. It’s this combination of sugar and medicine that makes a Nickel Creek song not only enjoyable, but sustainable and uplifting.
The Sean Watkins’ led “21st of May” is another of A Dotted Line‘s featured tracks, and his superb flatpicking draws you in to get lost in the end-of-days story inspired by a preacher named Harold Camping who foretold that date in 2011 to be the end of the world. The album’s opening track “Rest Of My Life” and a later one” Love Of Mine” is where the awe-striking brilliance of Chris Thile is on display, punctuated by gripping dynamics, and his ability to rise into the falsetto register with such ease and presence.
The trio really shakes things up when they whip out the song “Hayloft”; a cover from a Canadian indie-rock band called Mother Mother that is just weird and cool enough to work—though it will no doubt inspire many traditionalists to reach for the volume knob and give it a forceful turn to the left.
Nickel Creek has always been mostly catnip for the higher brow, upper crust roots aficionado, and A Dotted Line is not going to be suited for just anyone. This is not an album to be heard, but listened to, and appreciated for its gilded, artistic merit more than it’s gritty authenticity. However by challenging the ear, Nickel Creek can also open the heart to new appreciations for music and composition in an era when commercial concerns often begrudge the brightest musicians of our time.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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