If you’ve been hesitant to listen to this fearing, the dreaded Sophomore Slump, just let me assure you that this talented trio has avoided that problem in spectacular fashion.
Their first album showcased their exceptional skills as traditional
Bluegrass players. One of it’s weaknesses, though, were the lyrics on a few of the songs. You could tell they were penned by a teen-ager.
This album takes off in a different direction. Working with several covers, as well as originals, they show where Bluegrass can go. Infusing the traditional sounds with jazz and punk spices, they never lose their roots but come away with a gumbo that sounds original and comfortable at the same time. And they must have taken some lessons from mentor Alison Krauss because their lyrics show a maturity and depth missing on Hand Song or The Lighthouse’s Tale.
I particularly enjoyed their treatment of I Should’ve Known Better. The unusual rhythms and the discordant strings mesh with the lyrics in such a seamless fashion that you have to believe this is what writer Carrie Newcomer was hearing in her head as she wrote this song.
Chris Thile continues to sparkle on the Mandolin and Sara Watkins’ fiddle playing is superb. Vocally, either are capable of evoking whatever emotion they wish. They are simply wonderful. But the real surprise on this album is Sean Watkins. While he proved himself an accomplished picker on the self-titled debut album, his string-bending on this offer vaults him to a new level of mastery.
One of the biggest knocks against the Dixie Chicks is the fact that they’ve abandoned their traditional Bluegrass roots and gotten too country. This criticism may hold some validity. They still play fiddle and banjo, but the electric guitar and drums push them into a different, but related genre.
Some people might lodge a similar complaint against this album. Some people would be wrong. One of the most annoying elements of Bluegrass Traditionalists is their instance on playing depression-era songs in the same style, trying to invoke the same emotion and warping their voices into a false nasal-tone to try to match antique recordings. This wouldn’t be bad it they stuck to instrumentals, but the lyrics are frequently so out-of-date as to be meaningless.
The trend is taken to such extremes that you find modern people dressing as if they stepped off the set of Oh, Brother Where Art Thou while singing about share-cropping. These same people look down their noses at musicians, who appreciate the sound but try to bring it into the modern age. The whole exercise is trite.
Even the marvelous Alison Krauss falls prey to this temptation occasionally. Each of Union Station’s albums feature a traditional song, usually sung by band-member Dan Tyminski. Who needs another cover of The Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn or the hackneyed melodrama of Momma Cried?
Nickel Creek has taken traditional bluegrass instruments and wrapped those sounds around strong lyrics and original melodies to create a distinctively Bluegrass sound that, thankfully, sheds the contrived hickness of many other acts. The sole complaint, if you can call it that, I have is that they included only one instrumental.
I can’t wait to see where they go with the next album.