Nickel Creek’s CD shows a new side

(Red and Black)

“This Side”
Grade: A

The members of Nickel Creek have emerged on “this side” of adolescence with a hungry fan base, a hot sound and a new album.

The band’s sophomore album, “This Side,” was released in early August.

Band members Chris Thile, Sara Watkins and Sean Watkins have been playing together for the last 12 years and have only recently hit their 20s.

Defying their age, the trio works to layer musical forms common to the jazz, rock, country and classical genres against a foundation of bluegrass.

Nickel Creek, however, isn’t the typical bluegrass revival-turned-pop band.

It’s the form at its most progressive and experimental. But there’s no denying these kids are playing bluegrass, no matter what the form’s purists may say.

It’s taken the members of Nickel Creek the years between its debut and “This Side” to grow into their talents, but that’s not to say this album is dramatically different from the last.

Much like the band’s first album, guitars, mandolins and fiddles dance their way through “This Side,” producing a grand spectrum of colors.

There is no arguing, however, that Nickel Creek has evolved with “This Side.”

The album may be a bit more pop than the last, but without the “trying too hard” rock pervading the current country scene and the searingly painful “this is our radio single” that their debut album became known for.

Comparisons have been drawn to ’90s alternative rocker/jam bands such as Dave Matthews Band in style and sound, but it’s obvious to any musician that the talent evident in the song writing — as well as the playing — of Nickel Creek has far surpassed that of most of these bands, including Matthews.

Most of the tunes were, once again, written by Chris Thile, who may be among the nation’s best mandolin players.

He even garnered great comparisons to bluegrass great Ricky Scaggs for either his writing abilities or his mandolin playing.

His talents are just two of the many strong points of “This Side.”

Thile’s songs work though various styles, blending and pursuing new genres by the beat. His topics wander quite a bit, as well.

Even as two of the best songs on the album, “Young” and “Brand New Sidewalk” couldn’t be more different. “Young” deals with everything from puppy love to serious commitment while “Brand New Sidewalk,” warns against the pitfalls of fame.

Also, oddly enough, one of the album’s most beautiful moments occurs during “Spit On a Stranger,” when Thile’s voice is strained, struggling to hit a note. Finally, his weak whimper explodes into a roar, the note exploding from his lungs and filling the air.

“This Side” also holds some rather surprising cover tunes. These include folkie Carrie Newcomer’s “Should’ve Known Better” and Pavement’s “Spit On a Stranger.”

The latter would no doubt impress Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus, who would probably be a fan of the processed vocals and weaving guitar parts laid into the background of his song.

The album boasts an inventive version of the traditional American folk tune “House Carpenter,” as well.

–Leah Newman

Copyright Red and Black