REVIEW: Nickel Creek’s 3 Out of Print Re-Releases are Exquisite and Remarkable

Reviews

Nickel Creek – 3 Long Out of Print Early Progressive Bluegrass Vinyl – Now Audiophile Quality

These 3-vinyl audiophile/high-resolution Nickel Creek releases celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the progressive bluegrass trio’s official debut.

The self-titled 2000 release, the Grammy Award winner This Side (2002) both produced by bluegrass master Alison Krauss & Why Should the Fire Die? (2005) – produced by Eric Valentine (Smash Mouth) & Tony Berg (dropped Nov 6th – Craft Recordings – originally issued by Sugar Hill Records).

All were exquisitely manufactured with lyrics, photos & liner notes. Each a double-disc gatefold jacket.

On the 12-cut 50-minute red-vinyl debut the band consists of mandolin/banjo/vocals/bouzouki player Chris Thile, siblings Sara Watkins (violin/vocals) & Sean Watkins (guitar/mandolin/harmony vocals) with their father Scott Watkins (acoustic bass/upright bass/electric upright bass).

From the open Chris Thile’s original “Ode to a Butterfly,” a fiery mandolin, banjo, violin & acoustic guitar workout sets the stage.

Ode To A Butterfly
Provided to YouTube by Universal Music Group Ode To A Butterfly · Nickel Creek Nickel Creek ℗ 2000 Sugar Hill Records, A Welk Music Group Company Released on: 2006-01-01 Composer: Chris Thile Auto-generated by YouTube.
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Energetic & melodic bluegrass instrumental it’s a fine introduction to early Nickel Creek. Definitely a high point in their repertoire. The balance between the instruments & how each note pours from the strings is remarkable. These are not veterans of bluegrass – these were 3 young people who drove their string machines like race cars.

Even a non-bluegrass fan will find the solid structure melody of “The Lighthouse Tale” engaging. While Nickel Creek isn’t as intense as England’s Strawbs (originally The Strawberry Hill Boys) they have an appeal for the average ear just short of a confection – but never too sweet. They have the skill to play impressively & rollick in a bluegrass-commercial flavor that’s tasty. Individuality always focused.

Songwriter Sinead Lohan’s “Out of the Woods,” has an Alison Krauss vocal tinge – maybe Alison’s voice is in there somewhere uncredited but that’s unknown. Sara certainly has many of those same vocal qualities, Krauss inspired. It’s good. Sara’s violin is warm & holds hands with Sean’s rousing acoustic guitar.

Lots to digest between these 3 titles but it sounded excellent in 2000 & it sounds good today. The recordings are well-made & the group possesses a pearl of musical wisdom to perform with agility, passion & creative beauty.

Throughout tunes sound contemporary, vintage & traditional. Nickel Creek manages to balance these genres with each performance. It’s obvious the trio could play adeptly alongside such traditional mainstay contemporaries as the classic English ensembles Pentangle, Fairport Convention, Curved Air, the Acoustic Strawbs, Steeleye Span, Dando Shaft, Amazing Blondel & the Incredible String Band.

The 2nd 13-cut 50-minute This Side has lyrics & is a bit edgier. Thus, gained interest from indie music outlets. Byron House (acoustic bass) & Edgar Meyer (Arco bass on 3 tracks) join in. The intro, “Smoothie Song,” is a fiery & stimulating instrumental that leads into the inclusion of a Pavement cover “Spit on a Stranger.” It may have raised eyebrows but just like Johnny Cash put his stamp on Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor’s “Hurt,” & made it his own, Nickel Creek does the same. Bathed in a bluegrass cum Beatle approach the song works well.

There always clever covers on their LPs (including “I Should’ve Known Better,” a song by the great Michigan Americana artist Carrie Newcomer) with Nickel Creek’s originals.

This LP went to #1 on both U.S. Independent & Bluegrass charts. Nickel Creek managed to draw attention to bluegrass like few artists ever did. And — at a perfect time. The secret was probably their ability to add a pinch of commerciality to the tunes without losing the traditional attraction. Theirs goes down straight with no chaser…like many Alison Krauss albums.

Their repertoire doesn’t veer into dark alleys – though they don’t hesitate to explore intense subjects as in “Green & Gray.” The performance remains smooth as whiskey though it could’ve been as bitter as Jägermeister. The recordings have marvelous clarity.

Their diversity as musicians/singers is superb. It makes their material more listenable than traditional bluegrass bands that only aficionados can sift through. Early on bluegrass was a select taste. Even Elvis Presley in 1954 dabbled in it when he recorded the Father of Bluegrass music Bill Monroe’s high-lonesome sound of “Blue Moon of Kentucky (Kentucky is where bluegrass was born). Though Elvis added a little blues to his cover it was a hint of what needed to come with bluegrass. Elvis realized the music was good – he also knew music needed to entertain.

The 3rd – 14-song, 47-minute Why Should the Fire Die? swerved into faster the lanes where the Oyster Band, Spirit of the West & Great Big Sea drive. “When in Rome,” (the original LP’s only single) leans a shoulder into rockier bluegrass.

Nickel Creek – When In Rome – YouTube
Where can a sick man go? When he can’t choke down the medicine The old Doc knows. A specialist came to town, but he stays at home Saying no one knows, so I d…
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On this LP Sara utilizes more fiddle than a violin, Sean adds ukulele, baritone & tenor guitar, 12-string acoustic to his bag of tricks. Chris adds a tenor guitar & mandola. Mark Schatz (bass), & Eric Valentine (drums) are guests.

The covers were a minimum: Bob Dylan’s classic “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” sung by Sara’s is somewhat affectionate & whispery. Not with the desolate power Elvis Presley or Odetta afforded it. That’s the value of interpretation – they work. The production value is solid-state music.

“Jealous of the Moon,” is well-crafted with excellent lyrics, subtle melody & sung well. The songs have a delicacy of expression. No showboating but the expertise is evident. The quality of the material is consistently brilliant with shades of drama. On the instrumental “Scotch & Chocolate,” the immediacy is mindful of the band Goose Creek Symphony & their ever-fiery fiddle/acoustic guitar mix.

This LP garnered the band wider acclaim with their unmitigated performance zeal. These weren’t just young people who could play well – they were riveting, ballsy, rockier, emotive & exuberant musicians who knew their stuff (“Can’t Complain”).

Surprisingly, there’s an old Victrola-type tune sung effectively in 1920’s fashion by Sara before the thumping bass of Schatz bellows in. “Anthony” may sound like a novelty song but to older ears this is cool.

Rockier – a 12-string acoustic guitar intro ignites “Best of Luck.” It brings the band closer to a Fleetwood Mac flavor with Sara’s vocal perfection. 360 degree turn from the Dylan tune. Excellent harmony vocals. It lacks a dynamic drumbeat but nonetheless, the arrangement & performance: all good. Infectious even.

Best Of Luck – YouTube
Provided to YouTube by Universal Music Group Best Of Luck · Nickel Creek Why Should The Fire Die? ℗ 2005 Sugar Hill Records, A Welk Music Group Company Released on: 2005-01-01 Composer: Chris …
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Younger reviewers not familiar with the history of the genre never mention the artists I have. This is no emo band, & though this LP isn’t “mountain music” it’s the 21st Century & this San Diego, CA band Nickel Creek was wise enough to bring their “mountain music” into the new century.

These musicians perform with newly discovered bluegrass gusto (string-based music circa 1945). This music was not roundly accepted by the country elite. It took years for it to find its audience. Nonetheless, if researched further it had origins in Scotland, Ireland & England. With a touch of Appalachian high-lonesome sound it developed into wholly American music. The blacks brought their jazz, blues & ragtime — the Caucasian mountain people had country, folk & bluegrass. And it’s a wonderful thing.

Nickel Creek is not from Kentucky, but their effort is what makes music – magical. Bill Monroe would approve.

LPs are available at Amazon. Website: http://nickelcreek.com/

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