Nickel Creek,
Nickel Creek
(Sugar Hill, 2000)

Nickel Creek? No way. This name severely undervalues this bright, young, astonishing group. Make the opening bid Twenty Dollar Creek and go from there! The recording debut of Nickel Creek is one of the best new acoustic music band CDs I've heard in a long time, and what makes it even better is that at their age they can only improve.

I had heard of Chris Thile, the mandolin prodigy who has been around for several years and has brought out several albums. I'd been impressed by his previous CDs, but more because of his age than his musicianship. As in the example (in another genre) of Charlotte Church, it's not that she's so extraordinary as that she can make that sound at all at her age. To be totally honest, there's no way you can compare her to great adult sopranos. The voice has purity, but no real depth, and the sense of musicianship still needs to be greatly developed. So it was with Thile's early work: nice chops, but the kid wasn't really there yet. Well, he's there now, or at least so close that it makes no difference.

Thile is now 19, and his extraordinary bandmates are of the same generation. Guitarist and mandolinist Sean Watkins is 23, and sister Sara Watkins, on fiddle, is also 19. Chris's father Scott plays bass, and is the codger of the group at age 43. They seem to have listened to a whole lot of music in their young lives, and that music has been disparate enough for them to create the kind of sounds on this CD. This is most definitely not your daddy's bluegrass CD. This is new acoustic music, and if that term scares off you geezers who think that bluegrass was ruined for all time when Jim and Jesse McReynolds recorded an album of Chuck Berry tunes, turn back now.

But for those of you whose ears are always open to exciting new sounds, Nickel Creek will be right up your audio alley. From the very first track, "Ode to a Butterfly," you know you are in the presence of young musical demigods, from an amazing mandolin solo to an eye-opening guitar solo to a glorious and freewheeling fiddle solo. It's a song that never stops for air while grabbing you by the collar and insisting that you listen to this. The first vocal is "The Lighthouse's Tale," a beautiful song that's quite well written, except for a few awkward inversions ("The weather to a raging storm had turned," "He climbed my tower / And off the edge of me he ran"). Chris Thile shows off a sweet tenor voice that works perfectly for this song.

There's some gorgeous vocal harmonies on Sinead Lohan's "Out of the Woods," and another fine and rollicking instrumental with "In the House of Tom Bombadil," whose title alone made my Tolkien-loving heart beat faster. "Reasons Why" is a pretty ballad, but Sara Watkins seems to have fallen into the Alison Krauss school of soprano singing, a sound which is becoming more and more prevalent, and less and less distinctive, in bluegrass and new acoustic music these days. Alison Krauss (who produced this album) does it best, of course, and her influence is so widespread that every other female vocalist in this vein sounds imitative as a result.

Chris Thile performs another lovely vocal in Tim O'Brien and Danny O'Keefe's "When You Come Back Down." Robert Burns' "Sweet Afton" forgoes its usual melody for a Thile original sung by Chris with sweet breathiness and crystal clear intonation. The song goes right into "Cuckoo's Nest," a brief instrumental that builds brilliantly, and showcases Sara Watkins' superb fiddling. "The Hand Song" is a gospel vocal that, while sincere enough, becomes slightly cloying in its attempt to tackle too much story in too brief a time.

There's another fine instrumental in "Robin and Marian," giving the soloists chances to stretch out, Thile on bouzouki, Sean Watkins on mandolin and Sara on fiddle. The penultimate track, "The Fox," is a well-known folk song rendered forever laughable by the Smothers Brothers' rendition. It rocks here, holding up very well for all its years. The album draws to a sublime close with "Pastures New," a lovely, hymn-like instrumental by Sean.

The only acoustic music CD that's come out recently that surpasses this one in musicality and variety is Newgrange, and all the musicians involved with that project are giants in their chosen genres, at the peak of their form. Nickel Creek is the Newgrange of the future, the up and comers, "Acoustic Trek: The Next Generation," and this is your chance to catch them at the beginning of what are bound to be illustrious careers. Don't blow it.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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