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Chris Thile, Sara Watkins, and Sean Watkins
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Chris Thile, Sara Watkins, and Sean Watkins

Nickel Creek’s new hootenanny soundtrack satisfies but fails to excite

Music

When Nickel Creek first burst onto the scene in 2000, they turned heads with their heady brew of bluegrass, rock, and jazz. Time Magazine named the band one of five musical innovators of the millennium, while Billboard salivated over their “exhilarating blend of musical versatility, ambitious melodies, and a virtuosity that is at times jaw-dropping.” As their fame reached new heights, the band shocked everyone in 2006 by announcing an “indefinite hiatus.” 

This month, Nickel Creek released the highly anticipated A Dotted Line, their first album in nine years. Surprisingly, the album leans closer to their earlier, more traditional-sounding work, particularly in the instrumental pieces. “Elsie” is a bright scamper through the Appalachian countryside while “Elephant In The Corn” is a regular hootenanny, with Sara Watkins’ violin at the center of the hoedown. This leaves Chris Thile and Sean Watkins (on mandolin and guitar) to hightail it to the cornfield and playfully trade riffs. 

Of course, in typical Nickel Creek fashion, there are more than a few twists and turns on the album. Fiddler extraordinaire Sara Watkins takes a more upfront role in the album both vocally and compositionally, as seen in the hard-charging “Destination.” Watkins sounds older and gutsier as she declares, “You don’t owe me one more minute of your wasted time.” Thile’s thrashing mandolin emphasizes the clear break from love lost, while Watkins’ violin solo at the end achieves the satisfying reminiscence of a wailing electric guitar.  

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The pain of Thile’s divorce obviously informs his passion on the thrilling and genre-bending “You Don’t Know What’s Going On.” A thumping bass glides along with Thile’s speedy-yet-nimble strumming as he cries out for someone to demonstrate true commitment “who believes I can turn it around/who keeps bailing out the water while the ship goes down/who keeps calling my name when we’re starting to drown.” 

Guitar player Sean Watkins offers one of the most interesting moments of the album with his “21st Of May.” Starting out as a lovely, bluegrass spiritual, Watkins croons “It’s time to bid this old world goodbye/Oh glory time to fly away.” But these lines turn out to be a red herring for the punchline—a full-blown satire of Harold Camping’s infamous prediction for the rapture: “We’ll meet our savior in the sky/Hallelujah—the 21st of May.” 

Christian listeners may be tempted to offense as Watkins borrows imagery from the story of Noah while depicting Camping’s foolhardy assurance. But the tune doesn’t take itself too seriously, and a false prophet is fairly pointed out. Besides, Watkins’ solo collaborations with believer Jon Foreman of Switchfoot argue against any real animosity for Christianity. 

On the whole, A Dotted Line is an enjoyable journey with gorgeous harmonies and exquisite musicianship. Yet there are a few bumps in the road: The lyrics are more complex and often take a stab at profundity but miss by a wide margin. There are also references to a sexual situation on the Mother Mother cover “Hayloft.” More fundamental, the album is a little bit ‘twixt and ‘tween—lacking some of the rootsy celebration of their earlier work and missing a bit of the excitement of their trailblazing later work. But their love for music and their extraordinary gifting for it still shines through.

Jeff Koch
Jeff Koch

Jeff is a mortgage lender and graduate of the World Journalism Institute's Mid-Career Course. He lives with his wife and their eight children in the Chicago area.

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