Nickel Creek,
Reasons Why (The Very Best)
(Sugar Hill, 2006)

I have been aware of Nickel Creek for a number of years now, but only in the passive sense of catching the odd track on radio every now and then. I understood that they were broadly based in the bluegrass genre, but to pigeonhole them in this way would be to miss the whole story. What this collection shows quite clearly is the development of the band's sound from charming bluegrass-influenced, mellow pop to a full-blown fresh and modern indie sound that still retains those wonderful bluegrass leanings -- and all this in the space of just three albums! Reasons Why (The Very Best) consists of 12 tracks garnered from the band's three Sugar Hill albums; 2000's Nickel Creek, 2002's This Side and Why Should the Fire Die? from 2005. In addition, there are two tracks recorded live and a seven-track DVD of videos to their more popular songs.

The collection kicks off with Chris Thile's "The Lighthouse's Tale," starting out with Thile's ringing mandolin -- a sound that underpins the entire track, if not the entire sound that is Nickel Creek. Thile's plaintive vocals, Sara Watkins' sparse yet sure violin and Sean Watkins' steady guitar all combine to create a soothing and sensitive sound. It's remarkable that a song showing such maturity appeared on their debut release, particularly when you consider that two of the band's members (and indeed the song's composer) were still teenagers.

A cover of Sinead Lohan's "Out of the Woods" receives a formidable Nickel Creek makeover, with Sara's divine lead vocals ably backed up by the boys to create an expansive wall of sound. Similar levels of sublime beauty are reached on their cover of Tim O'Brien's "When You Come Back Down," with its infectious mandolin and fiddle outbursts. These three tracks all appeared on their eponymous debut album and the influence of producer, Alison Krauss, is very much audible.

Krauss also assumed the role of producer for their followup, This Side, and the tracks included here don't venture too far from the tried and tested formula of their debut, though a more modern edge is certainly apparent. "Smoothie Song" is an excellent Thile-penned instrumental track that takes bluegrass inflections and weaves them into a lively, contemporary number. "This Side" provides a polished pop-oriented performance with minimal bluegrass influences, though the band's strong acoustic sound remains.

By 2005's Why Should the Fire Die?, Krauss had been ditched as producer, and a much more modern sound was evident. The band's sound had morphed into what could perhaps be thought of as more befitting of their age -- the focus of the music was mush more indie or pop, though the acoustic instruments remained, albeit within an altogether darker and more menacing arrangement. It worked well -- it worked very well! Witness one of the two Thile compositions from this era, "When in Rome" or "Helena," to fully appreciate the extent of this fresh and exuberant sound.

The audio disc closes with "The Fox," one of the two live bonus tracks. Stripped of any extravagant production sheen, this allows you to fully appreciate the band's instrumental virtuosity in a full-on acoustic blast through this traditional bluegrass number. It is a perfect illustration of the band's energy and exuberance!

by Mike Wilson
5 May 2007

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