In Brief: Nickel Creek is back after a 7-year hiatus with a new album which covers a lot of ground in only 10 tracks, re-establishing them as an instrumental, vocal, and lyrical force to be reckoned with.
I’m skeptical these days when a band announces that they will be going on hiatus. As much as I give bands guff for announcing premature breakups and then realizing merely a few years down the road that they still want to work together, it can be far more frustrating to feel like you’re waiting for a reunion that will never happen. Sometimes a fan needs definitive closure rather than an open-ended promise that might never be fulfilled, you know? So I took it with a grain of salt when Nickel Creek bid their fans farewell (for now) with a greatest hits album and final tour in 2006-2007. I was bummed that they wouldn’t be continuing on the creative trajectory that had found the “newgrass” trio really hitting their stride on 2005’s Why Should the Fire Die?, but there was quite a bit of consolation in knowing that all three band members couldn’t help but stay busy. Mandolinist Chris Thile and guitarist Sean Watkins already had solo careers underway at that point, and while violinist Sara Watkins took a little longer to step into the spotlight, she and her brother were nigh inseparable, with their numerous appearances on each other’s records and as support in each other’s live bands making me wonder why the heck the group ever needed to split up in the first place. I figured that Thile had been the wildcard – perhaps being singled out as the creative leader of the bunch had made him long for broader horizons, or perhaps he was just some sort of insufferable genius with such huge ambitions that he was no longer speaking the same language as the Watkins siblings, or something like that. I still don’t really understand the reasons behind it, but by all accounts, the three remained on friendly terms, and just when I got to the point where I was satisfied with all three of them following their individual muses, they hit me out of nowhere with the announcement of their reunion in early 2014.
Fortunately, this wasn’t like some bands’ reunion announcements, where it only leads to a few scattered shows for old times’ sake and maybe a new track recorded for a compilation album. An album of 10 brand-new songs called A Dotted Line was already completed at that point, with its release date set for April 1st and a tour not long afterwards, and while the timing briefly led me to wonder if it wasn’t some sort of a cruel joke, it turned out to be the real deal. I’ve had A Dotted Line in my hands for almost a month now, and it has been so good to hear these three together again. This isn’t the sort of album that attempts to reinvent the band’s identity for the sake of pulling in a new audience – at least, not any more than the appetite for constant self-reinvention could be heard on their old albums anyway. A Dotted Line is more of a consolidation of the things that worked best for the group on their first three albums – a bit of the youthful spin on more traditional bluegrass heard in the instrumental tracks on their self-titled record, a bit of the all-over-the-place experimentation, the anything-goes collaborative songwriting, and odd cover choices heard on This Side, and a small helping of the mostly Chris Thile-dominated relationship angst heard on Why Should the Fire Die? The sound of it won’t be as foreign to “old-school” fans of the band as some of the murkier and more experimental parts of Fire, and the whole thing hangs together a little more cohesively than This Side did. It doesn’t quite hold the potential for seemingly boundless discovery of little details I’d missed before, due to not being as long and immersive as those two records, but that also makes A Dotted Line more accessible to fans who perhaps lost interest after their first record and its more mainstream country-friendly singles, a few of which are still recognized as the group’s signature songs. I’m not gonna say there’s an attempt to recapture the same mood as “The Lighthouse’s Tale” or “When You Come Back Down” here, since the more accessible tracks on A Dotted Line tend to be more aggressive and poppy, but fans of their old sound will probably appreciate the way that any experimentation present takes a backseat to simply enjoying the sounds of the three instruments at the band’s core and the interplay between them. Even at their most lyrically angst-ridden, the songs on this record feel infused with the sheer joy of rediscovering their younger selves and the magic that they made together when they were still kids.
With that being said, there are moments on this record where you can’t forget what has taken place in the years between. Sara’s strong second record, Sun Midnight Sun, is where I thought she really began to shine as a frontwoman rather than just as a backing player occasionally given a chance to take the lead, and the confidence heard in some of that record’s songs plays out quite well in the two sassier numbers she sings lead on here, while also wringing as much heartbreak as possible out of a fine Sam Phillips cover at the end of the record. Sean Watkins still has the “modest sideman” persona down to a T, but he’s given almost equal time on a pair of tracks that demonstrate the tragic and comic sides of his personality. Chris Thile is as boisterous as ever, but feels like more of a team player here, taking the lead on three tracks that are emotionally and musically all over the map. If not for the clear vocal contributions of his bandmates, any of them could have just as easily found their way onto a Punch Brothers record (and I greatly enjoyed their last one, so don’t mistake that for a diss). What remains are two instrumental tracks, and while neither of them stand out to me as much as personal past favorites like “Smoothie Song”, “Ode to a Butterfly” or “Scotch & Chocolate”, they’re likely to hit that sweet spot for fans of their self-titled record. A Dotted Line is probably the trio’s most democratic record yet, and a good indicator of how I hope they’ll continue to function in the future – as a collaborative outfit not dominated by any single person.
1. Rest of My Life
From past experience, I’d expect Nickel Creek to open this record with a fast-fingered instrumental or a confident, foot-stomping single in the waiting. Instead, they throw a curveball by starting with a melancholy Chris Thile ballad… hmmm, I’m not even sure if “ballad” is the right word here, because while the slow, syncopated pace of it feels a lot like “Jealous of the Moon”, it’s a much more boisterous and tightly wound song, with the three vocalists all belting out bits of the verses in unison. The song seems to hint at the circumstances behind their reunion, but with a bit of wry humor, as if to suggest they’d lost some sort of a battle and gotten backed into this position where they only had each other to rely upon. When Chris observes, “It’s one of those endings where no one claps, ’cause they’re sure that there’s more”, it’s quite fitting, not just as an observation on how they put the band on pause for so long when people were expecting more from them, but also as a description of the song itself, which for all if its loud strumming and exuberant vocals, is full of these cautious, pregnant pauses. I’m going to see the band live in a few weeks, and let’s just say that if they open with this one, they’ll have brought the house down by the end of the song. It just sounds like the sort of thing that’s meant to accounce “We’re back!!! …but on our own terms.”
A near-perfect segue just as “Rest of My Life” winds down leads us into the sudden jolt of Sean’s acoustic guitar that gets this song off and running. Sara steps up to the mic here as Chris lays down a galloping, percussive rhythm behind her, and she makes it absolutely clear that some loser’s been wasting her life or at least her sanity by being indecisive, and ain’t nobody got time for that! In the past, whenever Sara would do these sorts of “sassy” songs (like This Side‘s “I Should’ve Known Better”), there was always a bit of irony to it, because she would sing so meekly and sweetly that you could tell the song might not have been originally written for her voice. That’s not a criticism – I found it amusing at the time. But here, she goes for it with full-throated power, making you feel her pain when she quips, “I’m tired of trying to describe what you will never see/How good we could be/You gave up and lost it and now you’re looking for little grace/Well, look at my face!” The chorus here is one of the trio’s most jarring, with Chris and Sean banging the chords out as if their instruments had done something to offend them, and yet there’s plenty of room for them to finger-pick and play off of each other in the margins. Curiously, Sara’s violin is nowhere to be heard until she’s done singing and she joins the instrumental fray at the end of the song, just as it fades out. I kind of think this one deserves a punctuated ending rather than a fade, but I’m sure they’ll probably do it that way live. Either way, the song is awesome.
While a laid-back instrumental seems a bit out of place after the bold statement made by those first two tracks, there’s also a warm, fuzzy feeling of recognition I get as I wade into the smooth, flowing stream of Sean’s acoustic guitar melody and Chris’s sprightly mandolin soloing on top of it while Sara weaves in and out between them. This feels quite a bit like a lost session from their self-titled record, and while I find myself wishing for a bit of a surprise to shake things up like some of the instrumental bits on Why Should the Fire Die? did, it’s still a pleasant performance that doesn’t overstay its welcome.
4. Christmas Eve
You know you’re listening to a Sean Watkins-penned song when the melody starts off meek and quiet, not following any obvious chord progression, and the lyrics begin with an oddly specific occurrence but then don’t quite follow up with a whole lot of details later on. It’s kind of his Achilles heel as a songwriter – I noticed it on several of the songs he’s contributed to Fiction Family over the years, and while I feel his pain over a poorly-timed holiday breakup here, I don’t really know what to make of the little fragments of story that he doles out here. His pained cries of “Please darling, wait/It’s not all over yet” make up the entire chorus, going through some interesting and unexpected key changes as the words repeat, and slowly building up a good soft/loud dynamic similar to what “Rest of My Life” had going for it. it’s not as epic at its peak as that song was, but the way that the three voices come together and then wander off on their own tangents reminds me of several of my favorite moments from This Side, while the instrumental breaks are very much open-ended and exploratory. This one isn’t off-the-wall experimental or anything, but it’s also not your predictable breakup ballad by a long shot.
I feel a little guilty admitting this, but my favorite song on this album is an obnoxiously catchy pop/rock tune that Nickel Creek didn’t write. I’ve always enjoyed the trio’s humorous habit of plucking a song from either the pop charts or the world of indie rock, or some other more obscure genre, and making it bend to fit their quirky newgrass sound. Their ridiculously fun live cover of Britney Spears‘ “Toxic” (which sadly never got a studio version) was perhaps their most triumphant example of this, and this tune seems to follow the template in terms of how it immediately gets stuck in your head but makes you feel a little dirty for admitting you really like it. The source for this one was Mother Mother, perhaps the second most hated band in all of Canada after Nickelback. (Side note: Has anyone ever done a “Nickelback Creek” mash-up? Because I’m sure it would be hilariously horrible. Get on that, Internet.) It’s basically about two naughty young lovers gettin’ it on in a barn, until the party gets crashed by her gun-toting father, and the way Sara sings “My daddy’s got a gun, my daddy’s got a GA-GA-GA-GA-GA-GA!” while Chris recounts the story of being chased off at the business end of a barrel, is just too much fun for words. Her violin and Sean’s acoustic guitar are employed in place of the fast-paced and angular guitar riffs from the original, and while I could definitely see some people finding this extremely annoying, but trust me, it’s far more annoying with the original vocals. All due respect to Mother Mother for coming up with a genius hook, but man, their version is like nails on a chalkboard. Nickel Creek has a habit of making me rethink songs I might have originally written off as just plain stupid.
6. 21st of May
Sean’s other songwriting contribution to this album is a mildly humorous and mildly satirical song, driven by a much more traditional country/bluegrass-flavored acoustic guitar lead. For whatever reason, he was inspired to write a song about Harold Camping, the man who infamously predicted that the second coming of Christ (basically the beginning of the end for us Christians) would occur on May 21, 2011. This date, obviously, came and went uneventfully, and it might seem a bit unfair or just plain late to the party for Sean to comment on it nearly three years later after Camping is dead and gone, but the song actually looks at it from his point of view, blissfully singing old-timey “Hallelujah!”s like you might hear in a countrified Gospel song, about how happy he’ll be to get swept away to glory. The only bit of stinging criticism comes when he notes that Camping had done this before: “Well, I’ve never been so sure/And I’ve never led no one astray/… Except in the fall of ’94.” While he doesn’t blatantly come out and say it, this song can be taken as a skeptical commentary on the “End Times” hype perpetuated by a lot of churches nowadays that aren’t as far from the mainstream as some of us wish they were. Due to Sean’s tendency to understate things, some might miss the wry commentary and just assume it’s a straight-up song of faith… which is why you have to pay close attention to that one little slip-up he admits to. Either way, it’s fun to think that Nickel Creek is teasing the audience with something a bit more traditional here, only to pull a bit of a bait-and-switch. (While it’s fun to hear Chris and Sara contribute to this one, there are times when I wonder why Sean didn’t include this one on Fiction Family’s last project – it would have fit snugly alongside his commentary on “Guilt” or the equally countrified “Just Rob Me”.)
7. Love of Mine
Chris Thile, in an interview, once described the central character in songs like “Can’t Complain” and “Helena” (two of my favorite by the band, as it happens) as a “conniving asshole”. For better or worse, I’ve come to imagine the protagonists in a lot of his songs that way since then. I don’t think he’s one personally, but since some of his work has been rather candid about troubled marriages and such, one wonders to what degree he’s blurring the lines between fiction and reality and using songwriting as a bit of a vague confessional booth. I bring that up because, as bittersweet and full of tragic loss as this quiet song seems to be, it’s also self-contradictory and bitter in the same way that some of the most baffling songs he’s done with Punch Brothers can be. The opening line sounds endearing enough: “Love of mine, when you’re born, I tell myself that you’ll never die.” Aww, that’s sweet. Then it immediately shifts gears and starts to get weird: “And I throw my arms around the girl who finds you/’Cause the world is rosier through your eyes/I don’t suppose you caught her name.” Um… say WHAT now? On it goes as the song slowly unfolds, finding Chris torn between two women, one of them possibly a daughter who either died or was taken away from him, the other a girlfriend or wife who he comes to despise so much, he wishes she had never been born. It’s harsh and it’s beautiful and it makes me feel a lot of incongruous things all at once.
8. Elephant in the Corn
Just as we had “Elsie” smack in the middle of the album’s front half, we’ve got another instrumental – this one a bit longer and more complex – in the back half. This one has a bit of the same feel as a lively adventure like “In the House of Tom Bombadil” or “Robin and Marian” did on their self-titled disc, with a bit of “Scotch & Chocolate” thrown in due to the way it abruptly switches from fast to slow and then fast again. I like to imagine a madcap, cartoonish chase through a cornfield as all three instruments take off running, sometimes seeming to skip a beat or pull other odd rhythmic tricks as they meander on and on for over five minutes. As fun as this is, the mood whiplash starts to get a tad bit old by the time the second “slower” section of the song winds down, and you think it’s over, only for that frenzied fast section to reprise itself once more. It’s also a bit oddly placed between two incredibly angsty Chris Thile songs, but as usual, I’m not gonna deny the raw talent on display here.
9. You Don’t Know What’s Going On
While bitterness snuck in through the back door on “Love of Mine”, it’s on full, unbridled display in this frenetic song, which might just be the most up-tempo and downright furious thing Nickel Creek has ever recorded. It doesn’t sound that way as it tiptoes in, with Chris’s voice at a near whisper, grousing about how he got played by some lying liar of a woman, but soon enough it’s off to the races as he launches into one heck of a tongue-twisting chorus. Once again, it’s the vocal unison that really helps to sell a song that might otherwise seem like an indulgent side show for a single band member – when all three of them cry out in the bridge, “I tried! And I tried! And I’ll try! For YOUUUU!!!”, it’s almost as if the Watkins siblings are declaring “If you want to hurt him again, you’re gonna have to go through us!” For some reason it’s fun hearing these three support each other’s wildly divergent songwriting styles again after years of assuming they were too different to really gel in their their current states. The delicious ruckus that this song stirs up in just over two minutes before coming to an abrupt end proves me dead wrong on that point.
10. Where Is Love Now
If you missed the mellower and more forlorn side of Sara’s voice, she’ll do you up right with this closing song, which was written by Sam Phillips, a woman who knows a thing or two about heartbreak. Yeah, this is a bit of a tragic ending, but my God, it’s a pretty one. The same sort of uncertainty that plagued her way back in “Out of the Woods” nearly a decade and a half ago is in full force here, once again hitting that theme of not knowing how long to wait for someone or whether better dreams await for those brave enough to cut bait on the ones that don’t seem to be panning out. This one ties with “Love of Mine” for quietest song on the record – Chris’s mandolin is as gentle and reverent as the dew on a rose in the early morning, and while every instrument gets its moment in the spotlight, it’s all there in service of the tear-jerking melody, not as an excuse to show off. Fittingly for an album that’s all about being in between places and unsure of where to go or who to trust, the song hangs on an unresolved note at the end. I wish there could be at least three or four more tracks since I’ve hungered for new material from this band for so long, but they’ve knocked such a high ratio of the 10 we got here out of the park that I really can’t complain.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Rest of My Life $1.50
Christmas Eve $.75
21st of May $1.25
Love of Mine $1.25
Elephant in the Corn $1
You Don’t Know What’s Going On $1.75
Where Is Love Now $1.50
Chris Thile: Vocals, mandolin, bouzouki, acoustic guitar
Sara Watkins: Vocals, violin, ukulele
Sean Watkins: Vocals, acoustic guitar