Nickel Creek: This Side - An Album review

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 This wouldn’t be bad it they stuck to instrumentals, but the lyrics are frequently so out-of-date as to be meaningless.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.

What kind of uncultured place is this that a thread about Nickel Creek can drop off the front page with no reponses? Heathens!


Oh, y’all see a thread entitled Who would win, Manimal or Master Ninja? and you reply …

I have their first album and have kept it despite not listening to country, bluegrass, etc anymore. Good stuff.

I might give this one a look at some point as well. Good review.

agreed…i have the first, havent heard much of anything on the one yoou speak of…looking forward to getting it though…

They’re good, but I like the guitarist by himself though.

My family and I took a vacation to the coast this last summer and listened to their first album for 5 straight hours.

I actually haven’t listened much to their newer one, despite every member of my family having a copy, but I should get into it.

Joe K: I agree. Sean Watkins’ solo album is fantastic.

Oh yay! A Nickel Creek thread!
Huge fan here and I think that your review was spot-on, Homebrew.
I don’t have anything to add besides that, except maybe that Chris Thile’s mandolin playing gives me goosebumps. :slight_smile:

I have both albums, and I agree, for the most part, with Homebrew - they are both very good albums, but for different reasons. If I had to rank them, though, I would place This Side below their debut, for the following reason: On some songs (“Speak” and “Spit on a Stranger” are decent examples, but I can’t remember which one actually triggered this reaction), I felt that, except for the instrumental virtuosity (and bluegrass instruments), the song could have been sung by a generic pop group and played on a Top 40 station.

Normally I have very little problem with pop music. But what I love about their first album is how different it was from anything else I’d heard - different from standard bluegrass, and different from pop. It seems to me that they’re sort of losing that on this album. Which isn’t to say I don’t love it - it’s one of the albums I listen to most.

I saw them many years ago, and I was very impressed, although it was before I was as much into bluegrass as I have been in recent years. (I grew up around it and all, but I didn’t embrace it on my own for a while.)

I saw them again this past summer (in a double bill with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings–there’s a show worth the price of admission no matter what you paid), and I picked up This Side afterwards. At their best–the instrumental moments in particular–they’re near the top of the game when it comes to contemporary bluegrass. Chris Thile is frighteningly good, and the fact that he’s a few years younger than I am makes me wonder what the hell I’ve done with my life.

At their worst–particularly their lyrical/vocal moments–they remind me of nothing so much as the middle tier of the Christian Contemporary bands a roommate of mine in college used to listen to. While some of those bands were interesting, for the most part they were really bland, and their lyrics felt forced. Unfortunately, Chris Thile really stands out in this regard, as well–although it’s hard to hold it against him, for the same reason that it’s hard to hold a poor batting average against a pitcher.

Hell, it’s hard to hold any of this against any of them–they are, after all, in their early twenties, and given the growth they’ve demonstrated already, there’s no reason to think they won’t continue to mature, musically and lyrically. However, I feel that the same youthful exuberance that gives their lyrics an Up With People vibe keeps their music fresh, so I hope they know what to hold on to.

On my way out of that show, I heard some people near me talking about how they didn’t like it, because they “expected more bluegrass”. I share Homebrew’s disdain for the idea that bluegrass is a stagnant art form. I appreciate the emphasis on tradition, and the efforts of some musicians and bands to keep it alive, but there’s plenty of room in bluegrass for both the Del McCoury Band and Nickel Creek.

Dr. J

I’m glad people finally started responding. I thought I was going to have to resort to stoking Purient Interest by speculating whether the fact that Sara sang Sabra Girl, a song about unrequited love sung in first-person form to a girl, was her official Coming Out of the closet.

Well said. I suppose that the very people who think that all bluegrass should resemble a mediocre Bill Monroe performance at worst are the same kind of people who would play a banal pop song repeatedly…er, wait…