WE'LL SWEEP OUT THE ASHES IN THE MORNING
Li'l Pilgrims Progress Through The Prograss, And The Earth's Sweet Volcanic Cone
By Don Allred
Nickel Creek's self-titled Sugar Hill debut in 2000 was a keening,
blue-green-grass world of Kentucky-to-Southern-Cali, transplanted suburban Calvinist karma. Prodigies next to prodigals: "My greatest fear will be that you will crash and burn, and I won't feel your fire, I'm hung up on that wire."
Their wires include those on the mandolin, banjo and bouzouki of Chris Thile, then 19 (he's the tallest, and most excitable-sounding); the fiddle of Sara Watkins, at 18; the guitar of her brother Sean, then 23; and the little-but-wiry
vocals of all, who have performed and recorded together for donkey's years. 1993's Little Cowpoke, their first album,features the traditional(and Hollywood)
Western stylings of Chris, age 12; Sara, 11; and Sean, 15. (Be sure to
request "I'm an Old Cowhand," when they come to town.) 13-year-old Chris' first
solo album, 1994's Leading Off, stayed relatively close to tradition, but he got
more adventurous, on 1997's Stealing Second. 2000's *Nickel Creek went gold,
which is unusual for bluegrass, but so is its music. Not so much the classical
or jazz elements: those are fairly typical of progressive bluegrass. Yet
already, the Nickels had a strikingly lived-in point of view: songs like "A
Lighthouse's Tale" were early glimpses of the world's beauty and wreckage, between
the sea and the mountains, home and the freeway. They also sounded like they
were ready to hit the road, Jack.
There was one potential problem area, traveling with them.
"Look at my girlfriend, isn't she pretty?" Chris asked shakily,
clutching his mandolin and staring down into its "face" for CMT's cameras, in late
2001. "I don't WANNA boyfriend!" Sarah laughed, while stamping her foot, and
sounding like she meant this answer to a nosey reporter, in the same mini-doc.
(Shawn, the oldest, had no comment on the subject, that I recall.) Nickel Creek
were determined to focus all their energies on the music! Its nervous edge
was soothed and smoothed out, just a bit, by producer/mist-mama/burbgrass star
Allison Krauss, who brought some of her own discreetly renowned sound to the
Nickels' latent noise. The blend was distinctive, which may well be why, by '02,
*Nickel Creek ended up in Billboard's Top Twenty.
Later in 2002, on *This Side, they covered Pavement's "Spit On A
Stranger": "You're a bittah, stran-g-a-a-h, I could thpit on a stran-gah, " lisped
Chris, in a lofty, bratty way, a parody of self-righteousness. Perhaps it's a
self-parody, or some kind of allusion to his earlier,
Bible-study-to-Tolkien-shelf-to-practice-room perspective? Also striking was his own "Brand New
Sidewalk": "You might not have meant to, but it's done now, you can't take it out.
Is that what this is about? It's done now, you can't take it back. You cry
about what fortune leant you without a plan of attack." They were adapting to the
adult world, gathering and giving out some clues and cues, to certain
ch-ch-changes, but meanwhile, *This Side became hard to listen to. Its subtle
experiments needed some shine, not just polish, and certainly no more of *Nickel Creek's mood stabilizers. Speculative song-shapes' soliloquies and hairline
fractures tended to settle slow-w-w-ly into the dust of dissolving tempi. Maybe
muted drama and delayed impact are all Allison knows how to do. Maybe that's all
they wanted from her. Maybe she and the Nickels brought out each others'
insecurities, when faced with the need for change. Maybe they all should have
consulted Dr. Joyce Brothers. (Maybe contact with *This Side's underside drove
Citizen K. to "Whiskey Lullaby" ? Seriously. Also, the New Morbidity stage/trend
of country's ongoing Life During Wartime was about to waft her Applachoid,
post-dead-baby-ballad way, and maybe the Nickels had already met the New Unease.)
In 2005, their new *Why Should The Fire Die? sports more versatile (but not showy) producers, Eric Valentine and Tony Berg. Also, Nickel Creek
guitarist Sean Watkins, whose solo projects have included jazz musicians, sometimes
brings a Bill Frisell-ian, disappearing crackle to the glamorous darkness.
The Nickels are on the dime now: they sound like they're all dressed in
black, while easing back into the kind of places they once could enter and
leave only via the stage door, when underage. "When in Rome" doesn't fiddle
around. Except in the musical sense, as Sara's sweet, snake-charmer strings chime
around Chris's calls: " Hey, those books you gave us look good on the shelves at
home, and they'll burn warm in the fireplace teacher (no commas in the singing or on the lyrics page!) when in Rome. Grab a blanket,sister, we'll make smoke signals, bring in some new blood, it feels like we're alone." There's also a doctor who comes to town but stays at home, dead men (in the video, sooty WWI soldiers look at the camera, while Chris lies on his back, eyes closed, playing his mandolin and twitching like a cockroach), and a guy with a cold. But that's all in the family, when you do like the Romans do. I think this song has
to do with implied ironic references to touring musicians as cruising tourists, and to Churchly admonitions to "be in the world, not of it." Gang Of Four's "At Home He's A Tourist" also comes to mind.
But there are also plenty of seemingly more direct-to-midnight
confessions, and some boasting, about what bad li'l pilgrims they are. "I helped her
live, and made her want to die!" That's Chris, of course, but each Nickel
contributes to the songwriting, and they take turns singing lead. Sara's got a couple
about seeming the wimpy little sister to potential boyfriends, but one of 'em
goes off and gets married and then can't get Sara out of his mind! The only
consistently disappointing track (especially after her own writing) is Sara's
wispy version of Dylan's "Tomorrow Is A Long Time." (But it's a wispy song,
except when Elvis did it.) Brief instrumentals provide refreshment, while adding
momentum. And the Nickels stomp so hard, so often, that I didn't realize, 'til
reading the credits, after listening to the whole album, that only one track
features drums. And "Doubting Thomas" is a confession so mature it's
inspiring, especially since it leads to the breakthrough of the title song, in which
love and doubt aren't just risked, and lived with, but embraced. If you can grow
up to that point, then indeed, why should (and how could) the fire die?