In Brief: A fine debut from a young “newgrass” band who would grow in many ways after this, yet never quite be this successful again.
Out of all the bands I got into in the 2000s who have since gone defunct, there are few that I miss more than Nickel Creek. Not that I have much reason to miss any of the group’s individual members, given that all three have one or more side projects in full swing. But even as I was gushing about the latest Punch Brothers album just the other day, I realized that there’s just no going home again. There are elements of the Nickel Creek sound – at its core, basically a trio of wunderkinds raised on bluegrass music and getting increasingly exploratory over time – that no one involved can seem to recreate entirely on their own. Nor are they trying, really. It was a musical partnership that was perhaps doomed to splinter off in different directions as each member found him or herself as an artist, but it was one heck of a fun collaboration to listen to while it lasted, leaving a few of the most amazing concerts I’ve ever attended in its wake.
I’ve already had a lot to say about the group’s second and third major label albums – 2002’s This Side, which was largely about the joy of following one’s muse down the rabbit hole and which seemingly had a different mood for every day of the week, and 2005’s Why Should the Fire Die?, their most focused and at times heartbreaking record, which I ultimately came to appreciate as their best. If the split after that was inevitable, then well, at least they went out on a high note. But I never quite found the time to explore the refreshing youthful vibe of their self-titled record, released way back in 2000, in full detail. Though they recorded a few albums before this when they were merely kids, Nickel Creek is the album that introduced them to the world at large, leaving a few hit country radio singles in its wake while proving equally adept on the instrumental bluegrass side of the equation. True, there’s a lot of showing off just for its own sake here, which the band would downplay on later albums, but there’s also ample room for thoughtful songwriting. Forgive me for the analogy, but it’s the album that best demonstrates how the band embodied two sides of the same coin.
If there’s a major failing to this album, it’s that the split between the low-key folk songs with their lush vocal harmonies, and the crowd-pleasing instrumental barn-burners leaves almost no middle ground. The experience may give the listener a bit of whiplash, especially if you’re a first timer like I was when I first got a taste of the band back in 2001, and I had no real reference point for what an album of all-acoustic music with no percussion and virtually no influence from the rock music I was familiar with. But the album seemed to go over well with fans of bluegrass, folk, country, and Americana in general – certainly much more so than their later albums, which got mixed reception as the group intentionally started to blur genre lines. Here, either the trio was still young and naive enough to mostly play by the rulebook (which wasn’t a bad rulebook at all), or else they were itching to experiment but realized they needed to cultivate an audience first. As a result, there are a few moments here that can seem a bit pedestrian compared to their later efforts – a mellow instrumental that doesn’t quite take off, an unfortunate attempt at using patriotism to tug at heartstrings, and… okay, actually, those are the only two things that I can really complain about. The front half of this album is solid – every track a classic in the Nickel Creek canon – and the back half, while more of a mixed bag, is still quite admirable overall. I prefer most of these songs as part of a larger playlist spanning the group’s career, rather than hearing them straight through as an album, but that’s largely my personal preference. If you’ve ever been curious about the band or just about the “newgrass” genre in general, this would be an ideal place for you to start.
1. Ode to a Butterfly
If this had been the first Nickel Creek song you ever heard, the opening seconds of it might be a bit misleading, since they feature a banjo, which isn’t part of the group’s usual lineup. Strangely, this instrument isn’t prominent throughout the rest of the song, which like most of the traditional bluegrassy numbers on this album, gives the mandolin, violin, and guitar ample space to solo and also to lock together in a delightful groove. I can’t fathom how I was ever not impressed by this, but I guess back when I first heard these guys, I didn’t play an instrument myself, so I didn’t appreciate how difficult those rapid-fire notes were for nimble young fingers to pluck on their respective instruments. Chris Thile leads the pack astoundingly with some of his most dizzyingly fast work here, but he knows when to step back and just play “rhythm” so that siblings Sean and Sara Watkins, who seem to have an uncanny sense for each other’s timing, can play off of each other. The music lulls and swells, like a butterfly resting gracefully on a plant and then flitting off to another one every few seconds. The group wins many hearts here without even singing a word.
2. The Lighthouse’s Tale
Now if you’ve only ever heard one song by Nickel Creek, there’s a good chance this was it. It’s always struck me as a bit odd that this was the band’s biggest hit, because it is a truly tragic tale, but then this is country radio we’re talking about. A big part of the appeal is that it plays like the sort of folk song that’s been passed down through generations, rather than something that was dreamed up in the waning days of the 20th century. Here the band, with Thile singing lead, sounds lush, youthful, earnest, 100% committed to the land of rocky shores and lighthouses that they’re whisking us away to. And decidedly not too twangy – I’d characterize this as a midtempo song that uses both the violin and the mandolin to create a “windy” sort of melody that gently gusts around the listener. At times a verse will switch to the usual bluegrassy “double-time” sort of rhythm, but then it will switch back. All of this is important – it keeps the song exquisitely listenable once the surprise of the story being told wears off. Basically, it’s told from the point of view of a lighthouse, whose keeper is forced to watch as his one true love meets her horrible fate as her ship crashes against the shore below. If you’re already crying, save up your tears, because this thing ends in Romeo and Juliet fashion, with what might be one of the band’s few lyrical gaffes (“Then he climbed my tower/And off the edge of me he ran.” Sorry, but that just gives me an unwanted mental picture of some Looney Tunes character taking several steps off a cliff before looking down and realizing there’s such a thing as gravity.) It’s not enough to hurt the song though, which sympathizes with the endless decades that the lighthouse has had to stand alone since this incident: “And the waves crash around me/The sand slips out to the sea/And the winds that blow remind me/Of what has been, and what can never be.” Just one little nitpick that never quite occurred to me until now: If you’re a lighthouse, and ships are crashing into you, you’re doing something wrong.
3. Out of the Woods
A slow, expansive, and drop-dead gorgeous love song is up next, with Sara Watkins’ meek voice leading the way. Although the song arguably has the subject matter of a teenage girl’s diary, it’s phrase a heck of a lot more eloquently than that, as Sara pines for a clueless young man who can’t seem to make up his mind about her: “I wish you out of the woods and into a picture with me.” The way Sean’s constant fingerpicking anchors the song while Chris and Sara sprinkle subdued melodies on top, it’s easy to picture some distant forest, lit by the late afternoon sun, in which a young boy and girl are engaged in a playful (and slightly flirtatious) game of hide and seek. For young male fans inclined to crush on a beautiful and talented fiddle player, this was probably the song that launched a thousand ships. Plus there’s something that I can only assume is a Bob Dylan reference – “I rollercoaster for you/Time out of mind must be heavenly.” Perhaps an early hint that these youngsters had more cutting edge influences than you might expect? It wouldn’t be long before they found themselves at a similar crossroads between genres whose audiences didn’t quite know what to do with ’em.
4. In the House of Tom Bombadil
Another thing that’s hard not to love is when a young band makes a reference to The Lord of the Rings in their music. It’s in an instrumental track, which I suppose could have just as easily been named after anything from fantasy lore, but let’s just say that the timing of this one (released just a year before Peter Jackson unleashed his now-legendary film trilogy upon the world) makes it that much more tragic that the character wasn’t even portrayed in the films. The group is deliberately offbeat here, working with a structure and melody similar to “Ode to a Butterfly” (to the point where I sometimes get passages from the two confused), but constantly skipping ahead of themselves to get to the next measure, which wreaks havoc with the time signature. Listening to the bass (played by Chris’s father Scott Thile, as it is on most of the album) trying to keep up its usual two-step beat while constantly getting stepped on by the jumpy rhythm is half the fun. If a hobbit party could have a soundtrack, I can only assume that this would be it.
5. Reasons Why
Even relatively early in his career, Sean Watkins was apparently struggling with the pressures of being a celebrity with a hungry audience hanging on his words. I can only assume as much from this delightfully minimal song that he co-wrote, on which his sister once again gets a shy but commendable turn on lead vocals. With its laid-back, syncopated bass rhythm, this is probably the only song on the album that I’d characterize as an “out-of-genre” experience for the band (the sort of thing they’d take further delight in on This Side a few years later). One could almost call it “soulful”, if that didn’t sound like an odd way to describe three white kids from San Diego trying to play bluegrass. Interestingly, Sara’s violin isn’t terribly prominent on this track, which relies more on the rhythmic aspects of the guitar and mandolin. Sean gets a solo here that for some reason, my mind wants to describe as “talkative”. For Sara’s part, she sings in almost a timid whisper, reading her brother’s lyrics as a sort of quiet soul-searching, wondering if she’s got the wherewithal to stand up for something that she believes in front of a crowd that just wants to be satiated. In this context, the sheer hubris of the thought “Others have excuses/I have my reasons why” takes on its own special sort of irony.
6. When You Come Back Down
This gentle folk song seems to have been another hit for the band – it doesn’t quite grab my attention like “Lighthouse” did, but it’s pretty enough in its own subtle way. For some reason my brain thinks of it as a Sean song, because his acoustic guitar is the most prominent instrument, but it’s actually Chris singing lead, with Sean on harmony vocals. (I had trouble telling the two apart at first – on later albums, their voices seemed a lot more distinctive to me, probably because Sean got to sing lead a little bit more.) The sheer sentimentality of it is probably what connected with a lot of listeners – Chris seems to be bidding a lover farewell as she sets off to become a budding young star, and he wishes her all the best but also admits to being afraid that her fame could be short-lived and that she might crash and burn. Probably not the kind of thing you want to say to a loved one with such aspirations, but the important thing is that he notes he’ll still be there for her to return to whenever the ride is over. This is alternately touching and treacly, especially with cornball lines like “Angel, let me help you with your wings”. But, at least the song picks an analogy and sticks with it. The subtle approach taken by all players involved may actually help to keep the earnest sentimentality from getting too overpowering. I don’t personally consider this song to be among the band’s best, but the way that they perform it adds a touch of class above the presumably horrendous country-pop arrangement it might have gotten if it had been handed to any number of the chart-topping artists of the era.
7. Sweet Afton
Here’s where the album starts to falter a bit for me. Remember how I said that “Lighthouse” felt like it could have been a centuries-old story? This one actually is – it’s an old Scottish poem that involves a man wishing a rushing river and other forces of nature would tone it down a notch so that his baby can sleep. Seriously, that’s pretty much exactly what it says, though it does so in lavish verses that spare no detail regarding the splendor of each element of creation that he’s trying to shush. Chris Thile adapts the poem into a lovely lullaby that unfortunately overstays its welcome, lasting over five minutes as nearly every verse seems to play out in the same manner – at first, charming due to the gentle touch of the mandolin and violin, then, slowly growing a bit more excruciating with each pass as the number of thoughtful pauses in the song begins to feel a bit unnatural. I suppose if you were actually trying to put a baby to sleep, this might do the job. I felt this way about “House Carpenter” on This Side, so perhaps I should just say that adapting old poems isn’t Thile’s strong suit.
8. Cuckoo’s Nest
Here a traditional folk melody – it sounds like a jig, actually – gets trotted as a brief, fun segue between two of the album’s slower tracks. It’s not as show-offy as the previous instrumental tracks, but it still sounds like it was a lot of fun to play. This one was more notable in the band’s concerts, when Chris Thile would demonstrate his clogging skills. No joke.
9. The Hand Song
GLURGE ALERT! It may seem like shooting fish in a barrel to accuse a country song of being too sappy and sentimental, but this one manages to pull a bit of a hat trick by tugging at our heartstrings regarding (a) cute little children, (b) religion, and (c) patriotism. Also – and it took me years to realize this – IT MAKES NO FREAKING SENSE. Oh sure, for the first two stanzas it does – and I might even argue that it makes a charming, if not terribly well thought through, analogy. See, there’s this little boy, and he wants to show mommy how much he loves her, so he picks some roses for her, only to run home screaming and crying because his hands got all bloodied from the thorns. Awwwww. I’m sure that many a parent has had that experience. It rings true. And the conclusion drawn, as Sara sings so sweetly, is this: “He was showing his love/And that’s how he hurt his hands.” Remember that, because this is one of those songs that pulls the trick of using the same chorus, but having it mean something different after each verse. Second verse, the same mother is reading her child a bedtime story about Jesus. And this precocious kid looks at a picture of the newly resurrected Christ and points out, “Mommy, he’s got some holes just like me!” You can see where they’re going with that chorus. “He was showing his love/And that’s how he hurt his hands.” Alright, maybe it’s a bit of a stretch to compare a child’s well-meaning but blundering mishap to the quite intentional sacrifice made by the Son of God to redeem the entirety of mankind, but I can see a kid pointing something like that out in Sunday school, so I’ll let it slide. (Also, the melody and Sara’s violin are so durn pretty that it truly makes it painful for me to pick on this song.) But then, along comes the third verse, and here’s where things get baffling. Our little boy grows into a man and gets drafted into the army. Within the span of about six lines of lyrics, he gets shipped out to fight in some foreign war and… something bad happens. This is as specific as Sean Watkins and his co-writer David Puckett apparently had room to get: “It wasn’t that long till our hero was gone/He gave to a friend what he’d learned from the cross.” And then that old familiar refrain comes back around again. “He was showing his love/And that’s how he hurt his hands.” HANDS??!?! Wait, song, are you being serious right now? Let’s discuss the scenarios here. One, our hero comes home in a bodybag. In that case, saying he hurt his hands is one hell of an understatement. Two, our hero survives, but comes home an amputee. The song doesn’t really tell us what sort of injury took place, so it ‘s missing the crucial step necessary to drive the analogy home. Three, he tried to pick some roses for some “friend” he met in the service, and got the boot due to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. Nah, pretty sure that’s not it. So what we’re left with is a song that draws some really uncomfortable parallels between foolish childhood accidents, a non-violent act of history-altering resistance, and American soldiers meddling in foreign affairs, as if to say that these are all basically different shades of the same expression of love. YIKES.
10. Robin and Marian
What’s this? An instrumental ode to a folk hero who robs from the rich and gives to the poor? Surely this must mean that the band members are secretly socialists! BOO HISS! (Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize. The “snarky armchair pundit” segment of my personality apparently missed that memo about the election being over. Won’t happen again.) Nickel Creek sets out to do in threes and sixes here what they did in sevens and eights and whatever the hell it was in “Tom Bombadil”. And here, they’re performing a fantasy-fueled, romantic-sounding piece that easily whisks me away to some medieval forest where our titular hero and heroine are playing a game of hide-and-go-seek… aw crap, I already used that analogy. But seriously, that’s exactly what I’m thinking as I get flashbacks to one of my favorite Disney cartoons when I was a kid – you know, the one where Robin and Marian are foxes? Well, anyway… this is mostly a playful waltz that ebbs and flows like the band’s other instrumental pieces on this album, and then there’s one unexpected section where the song suddenly takes off running, as if there were a heart-pounding chase scene… but then it returns to the original theme, as if Marian realized it was just Robin chasing her and the two collapsed into a pile of leaves, happily removed from the injustices that would someday be brought upon them by the likes of that ruthless, no-good Prince John, and also Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe.
11. The Fox
Hey, speaking of foxes! (How did I never make that connection until now?) This is the only up-tempo bluegrass track on the album that actually features vocals. It’s also a live favorite, to the point where the album version pales a little bit in comparison. Not that the traditional lyrics about a cunning fox stealing a hen from a local farm and ripping it to shreds to provide a joyous feast for his family aren’t tons o’ fun. (Did we actually entertain children with such morbid tales back in the day? Well, I suppose it wouldn’t seem that grisly if you grew up on a farm or whatever.) But in concert, Chris Thile really plays up his role as hoedown leader, even going so far as to throw in a wacky verse in which he rattles off rapid-fire lyrics that fall somewhere between square dance caller and auctioneer. Check out the version on the band’s best-of album to see what I mean. I’m willing to bet that this was one of those songs that the band members had been playing, or at least finding themselves amused by when other bands played it, since their childhood. It just has that sort of giddy goofiness to it that makes it easy to join in the fun – even if you can’t keep track of the lyrics, you’ll still want to holler “Town-o! Town-o! Town-ooooo!” at the top of your lungs.
12. Pastures New
I find it interesting that the band pulls a switcheroo at the end, following an up-tempo vocal song with an incredibly mellow instrumental song. Like “Robin and Marian”, this is a Sean Watkins composition. it sounds like the sort of thing he came up with while ruminating over some minor chords and contemplating a long, slow sunset. Sara mostly accompanies him by playing the same melody on the violin, leaving Chris to add little bits of improvisational flavor. On the one hand, I can appreciate the calm grandeur of this tune at a distance, but it doesn’t hold up as well when paying attention to the details. Like “Sweet Afton”, it drags on for a bit too long without a whole lot changing. That makes the album end on a reverent note, which is nice and all, but I think a little more coloring outside the lines could have made this one a bit more distinctive.
Sorry if this review ran a bit long, by the way. Even though I have my criticisms, this album brings back so many fond memories of a band that I loved, to the point where writing about them is giving me Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. And that’s how I hurt my hands.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Ode to a Butterfly $1.75
The Lighthouse’s Tale $2
Out of the Woods $1.75
In the House of Tom Bombadil $1.50
Reasons Why $1.50
When You Come Back Down $1
Sweet Afton $.50
Cuckoo’s Nest $.75
The Hand Song $.25
Robin and Marian $1.25
The Fox $1.25
Pastures New $.50
Chris Thile: Mandolin, vocals
Sara Watkins: Violin, vocals
Sean Watkins: Acoustic guitar, vocals
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Originally published on Epinions.com.