Nickel Creek have been blazing new trails through the traditional bluegrass since the group’s members were teenagers back in the 90s. After a string of Grammy and CMA nominations (and a couple of wins) the group announced an indefinite hiatus in late 2006.
The three members have been quite successful in their post-Nickel Creek projects, but they must have gotten nostalgic for the old days. Just last month the band announced that they would reunited and be putting out a new record.
“A Dotted Line,” due out April 1 from Nonesuch Records, sounds like the group never missed a beat. Chris Thile and Sean and Sara Watkins picked up right where the left off, challenging the strict conventions of traditional bluegrass and making some really fun music.
The album opens with the Watkins brother soulfully strumming his acoustic guitar.Thile’s mandolin picks in and the song builds to the chorus. And when it hits, with its lush three-part harmony and longing fiddle lines, the listener is in for a treat.
From there, the album winds through a variety of progressively rootsy tunes. “Destination” rocks pretty hard with its aggressively down-stroked refrain. “Elsie” is a sort of jazzy instrumental jaunt that could have just as easily come from Dave Matthews Band. The band took Mother Mother’s “Hayloft” and turned it into a delightfully weird freak folk barn burner.
While the diversity of the album is impressive, but what truly astounds is the way these three musicians gel and feed off one another. On the woeful ballad, “Christmas Eve,” all three singers engage something like a round, overlapping each others vocal phrases, subtly bending from tension to resolve.
Ole Bill Monroe might scold these whipper-snappers for their progressive take on bluegrass, but as far as this writer’s concerned, Nickel Creek’s innovation in the realm bluegrass is welcome and admired. These guys know both where their music comes from and where it’s going.