It’s been some time since I gave some set of music its week, but sitting this morning listening to some randomly selected music, I decided today was the day. I’d like to mention one of my favorite groups, Nickel Creek.
I happened upon Nickel Creek years ago when a friend burned me a CD of a few hundred mp3s, few of which actually produced lasting interest. However, in the mix was a single Nickel Creek song, A Lighthouse Tale. The tragic love ballad of two people told from the perspective of a lighthouse. The acoustic mingling of mandolin and fiddle set underneath some really stunning vocal harmonies was enough to hook me. Of course, it’s not what most would consider the manliest music in the world, so it was some time before I felt confident enough to really get into the group’s music.
While the group recorded a couple of independent albums, the first of the group’s albums I snagged was their first major release, Self-titled; the album from which A Lighthouse Tale came. It took almost no time at all for me to discover that the group really has some deep roots in bluegrass, with the introductory song Ode to a Butterfly. About four minutes of intricate instrumental maze-work akin to something you’d likely hear in your head while trying to escape from an angry mob, down a dirt road, in a stolen hoopty pick-up truck. By the time the song had finished playing through my speakers for the first time, I’d also discovered my own, yet unknown, affection for bluegrass music. Of course, Nickel Creek’s music didn’t stop there. While the album sports a couple other instrumental pieces, it’s not where the group shines.
It wasn’t long before I was introduced to the group’s second major album This Side. Although I was highly preoccupied with the Self- titled album, the follow-up record was just as good. The bluegrass roots are slightly more subtle, the melodies, music and harmonies lack nothing. The first song to catch my ear from the album was a cover of Pavement’s single, Spit on a Stranger, although I didn’t know the song was a cover until later. Listening to the original later, I discovered that Nickel Creek truly did the original justice. They didn’t butcher or mangle the original’s work, but tweaked and adapted it. Coming shortly after Spit on a Stranger was the song’s title track This Side, then the chronicles of a man’s hidden affections for a woman in Green and Grey.
Then, the most recent album, Why Should the Fire Die, hit the charts. I think that it appears that the group hit the mark of its musical vision in this record. They didn’t forsake their past expressions, or attempt some strange reinvention, but they introduced to their narrative a kind of pop-bluegrass that hadn’t shown itself yet and frankly I think can scarcely be seen elsewhere. The introduction is especially noted with Somebody More Like You and Helena. The group also debuted a kind of strange teen-angst that you wouldn’t expect to hear along side a fiddle; “I hope you meet someone your height So you can see eye-to-eye, With someone as small as you”.
There are some tracks where the groups obvious Christian affiliation can be seen. Most notably in the masterpiece Doubting Thomas, which has since (unfortunately) been covered by a number of Christian recording artists. Also, to a lesser extent, The Hand Song is also an interesting pseudo spiritual-political piece. While in a number of songs the faith connection is clear, there are other songs where the connection is evident but significantly more subtle. The group definitely doesn’t tout themselves as a Christian group.
Unfortunately for all of us, the group has said farewell to recording. Their final tour was this past year, which is truly a shame. In the single live performance I managed to attend, they earned a spot as one of my favorite live acts. Although all three permanent members, front-man Chris Thile (world class mandolin player and vocals), Sara Watkins (fiddle player), and Sean Watkins (vocals and guitar), all have solo-acts, none of them measure up to the masterful work of their collective.
So, to summarize, go get acquainted with Nickel Creek for yourself. I’m confident you won’t be disappointed.