Nickel Creek,
This Side
(Sugar Hill, 2002)

I started listening to this CD determined to enjoy it. I'd liked the previous Nickel Creek album, as well as Sean Watkins' recent solo CD, and gleefully enjoyed watching all the aging members of the Bluegrass Police get their bodices all in a stir over this young band's blend of bluegrass with new acoustic music for a fresh and appealing sound. And it started off fine....

"Smoothie Song" was a great opener, with its quirky chords and time shifts, and its blues and jazz-oriented themes delivered with great skill. Then came the first vocal, "Spit on a Stranger." No problem, since, as I'm an old punk fan, people spitting on people was something I could deal with. The song was pleasant enough, Beatlesque in a sweet way. Sean Watkins' "Speak" was next, an interesting song with a transcendent moment when Sara Watkins comes in on the chorus. "Hanging by a Thread" gets a wonderfully stripped-down treatment with mandolin and vocal, and Carrie Newcomer's "I Should've Known Better" has a disquieting, disorienting and dissonant string section that makes the song 3-D in the extreme.

The title track by Sean Watkins starts delicately, but slips into a near-reggae rhythm. The lyrics are less than concrete and require the explanations on the press release (unfortunately not included with the CD). Chris Thile's "Green and Gray" is less obtuse lyrically and is filled with musical twists and turns (and is also graced with guest Edgar Meyer's superb Arco bass work). Sara's beautifully breathy voice is featured on Watkins' "Seven Wonders," an intriguingly mystical song.

Right about this time, however, discomfort started creeping in, and I started thinking, "Man, these kids are really depressed," a feeling contributed to by Thile's earnest singing of that sad old traditional ballad, "House Carpenter." This solemn song was followed by the swinging but introspective "Beauty and the Mess" by Thile and Luke Bulla, about what a performer gives to the audience and keeps for his or her own self: "All they all get out of you is what they get out of the show/The rest is mine I guess...." Then comes Andy Irvine's (of the Celtic group Planxty) "Sabra Girl," another tragic tale: "Lonely the life and dismal the view/Closed is the road that leads to you." And now I'm thinking, "Wow, these kids really are depressed! All these songs are so self-obsessed and tragic and inward-looking, and gee, maybe they should've just stayed off the road and been kids or something...."

And then Chris Thile sings his "Young," which begins with a wailing, "Young and with no clue, and I wanna love you," and goes on to examine self-doubt and mutual need on top of a great, funky rhythm. The whole shebang ends up with Thile's "Brand New Sidewalk," in which what seems a lifetime passes during the five years between which the loved object presses her hand into wet cement and when she comes together with the narrator, and I thought, "Five years? Man, when you're my age, five years isn't long!" Then I thought, "Man, this is such a sellout -- teen angst/pop and dressing up in daddy and mommy's mourning clothes, and the perils of fame, man, what a super downer...."

And then I let a week or two go by and came back to listen again and write this.

And this time, when I listened closely to the music, I thought, "You old fart. This is good stuff. It's sincere, it's true, it's well-written, it's performed impeccably, and just because it didn't immediately conform to your idea of what a Nickel Creek album should be, you were going to rank it with 'Nsync and Britney Spears! These are terrific young artists who, while they might not yet be profound, are at least serious about their work and what they create, and they deserve encouragement and praise! So grow up and let them grow up as artists at their own pace and on their own terms!"

Thus abashed and humbled, I knew that I was right, and the more I listened to these new songs the more I liked them. Nickel Creek is a work in progress, reaching out, doing new things, finding new ways to express themselves, and if you don't like it, listen again, or better yet, come back five years from now and see what they're doing. My bet is that it's going to be something new, something different, something heartfelt and something that makes old farts even more jittery than before.

- Rambles
written by Chet Williamson
published 16 November 2002

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