Review Summary: Bluegrass for the new world, while never quite giving up the old world.Nickel Creek
, nearly twenty years on from its release, offers a few different interesting tales of progression. At the time it was released, the members of the bands were seen as bluegrass musical whiz kids, all around twenty years old, some slightly younger, some slightly older. In 2019, the members, all around the age of forty, have sidestepped the woes that often come with the label of prodigy and have become the wizened experts of their field. Chris Thile, perhaps the best known mandolin player in the world and filling the shoes of Gerrison Keillor as the host of of Prairie Home Companion
, with siblings Sarah and Sean Watkins taking their skills on fiddle and guitar, respectively, to greater heights. As members of Nickel Creek, they created a wave of “newgrass”, a progressive bluegrass for the modern world. This sound that is equal parts accessible and challenging has been tweaked by Nickel Creek, its members, and other artists in the time since, to great success (and, I’m sure, with misguided experimentation as well). However, that glimmering sound they created that conjures the image of a sunset on a porch has still never been perfected quite in the way that it was on Nickel Creek
The thing that is important about Nickel Creek
is that it doesn’t sound like it’s trying to tweak the sound of bluegrass. It isn’t attempting to bring the sound to a modern age or to put their own twist on the sound; that’s because there is no attempt, only unbridled, effortless success. What might be best described as bluegrass-infused acoustic pop is what is found across the album. Any song that tells the story of two doomed lovers from the perspective of a lighthouse might sound unusual, but is delivered with a small town earnestness that not only makes the lighthouse a narrator, but an empathetic friend. “Out of the Woods”, the star ballad, contains beautiful harmonies and a melody that wouldn’t sound out of place on early 2000s radio, if not for the tasteful mandolin and fiddle that stand at the forefront of the song. This doesn’t even mention the number of standout tracks that would make guitar, mandolin, and fiddle players all stand alike with jaws agape. The floating, beautiful tenor of Thile finds its way throughout the album, with Sarah and Sean Watkins occasionally taking the lead, and with great effect on “The Hand Song”, with harmonies abundant from all members. Every single song has an earnestness to it, but never rests on its laurels - These aren’t small town musicians playing around a fire for small crowds. These are musicians at the top of their game who had the whole world ahead of them, and they grasped that world.
The closing track on Nickel Creek
is titled “Pastures New”, which seems appropriate. There is a sentimentality throughout the album, and not just for listeners who grew up with the album and impose a sentimentality to it. The entire production conjures images of memories, perhaps due to the traditional ideals often attached to bluegrass. However, this isn’t bluegrass. It’s not folk either, nor is it country or pop. Nickel Creek, the band and the album, brought nostalgia to the new world and promptly threw it away. It doesn’t make us long for the days of traditional music, but makes us realize that there is no such thing as traditional music
as long as innovators exist. There is music, and variations on music, and music that inspires music. And then there is music that inspires. Not necessarily large inspiration. Sometimes inspiration to soak up what is around us is enough. This is what Nickel Creek
provides - Inspiration to go out at night, look at the stars, and capture a few fireflies.