Album of the Week: A Dotted Line, Nickel Creek

It’s no secret that I like mandolinist extraordinaire Chris Thile. Until recently, though, I had only experienced him in a few limited contexts—like the excellent trad bluegrass album Sleep With One Eye Open. Some of his more experimental stuff, though, like Goat Rodeo Sessions or even the Punch Brothers, is a little too avant-garde for me.

I knew that Thile first got his start in a band called Nickel Creek, but it wasn’t until their new album A Dotted Line came out a few days ago that I really bothered to dig in.

The first thing you’ll learn about this album if you read anything about it is that it’s the band’s first record in nine years. This isn’t surprising given that as far as I can tell, Nickel Creek was (pardon this pun) disbanded in 2007 while the three members—Thile, along with fiddle player Sara Watkins and guitarist Sean Watkins—played in other projects and groups.

Critics generally lump Nickel Creek into the bluegrass genre, but in comparison to Sleep With One Eye Open, there’s very few of the genre’s touchstones present here. The songs are harmonically complex, played at moderate tempos, and lack the piercing vocalizations that spring to mind when the word “bluegrass” gets bandied about. Yet there’s something in the album’s acoustic instrumentation, the rich multi-part harmonies, and Eric Valentine’s clean and unobtrusive production that makes the album’s heritage apparent. You can tell what type of music they were raised on.

This tension between old and new is apparent in the first half minute of “Rest of My Life.” The opening guitar riff owes as much to American roots music reinterpreted through the Rolling Stones (cf. “Sweet Virginia” or “Sweet Black Angel”) as it does to Scruggs and Flatt. The harmonies appreciably flesh out the sound, but the cello chops during the bridge at 1:58 are more Goat Rodeo Sessions/Punch Brothers than trad bluegrass—although they evokes the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home” as well.

Sean Watkins sings the two strongest songs on the album: the exquisite “Christmas Eve” and the joyful “21st of May.” “Christmas Eve”’s interval jumps in the melody probably make it a demanding song to sing, but Watkins handles them effortlessly enough that the listener can focus on his mournful longing rather than his technique. The chord progression is also consistently surprising, and moves in directions far beyond typically simple bluegrass patterns. It’s a well-crafted song that feels much longer—in a good way—than its 4:23 run time.

“21st of May” is just about as traditional as it gets on this album, with a undulating mandolin/guitar riff, and quaintly Evangelical lyrics. “They laughed when Noah built his boat/then cried when came the rain/and they mock me now but I will float/on the 21st of May” is hands-down my favorite chorus, again because of Watkin’s sincere delivery. He’s an empathetic vocalist and a clean guitar picker too—just listen to that riff.

Thile rivals Watkin’s for heartbreaking vocals on “Love of Mine,” but his most important contributions seem to be compositional rather than performed. He’s not slacking, but neither is he stealing the spotlight, as he tends to—consciously or not—with his other projects. This is actually really refreshing, particularly in light of Thile’s significantly higher profile than the Watkins siblings. Here, he’s the mandolin player in Nickel Creek, and not Chris Thile, MacArthur award winner and savior of mankind. His musical fingerprints are all over the songs, though, and I can’t help but think the tense reading of Mother Mother’s “Hayloft” was Thile’s idea.

Sara Watkins’ fiddle provides a strong voice on the album’s two instrumentals, “Elsie” and “Elephant in the Corn.” She has a warm, rounded tone, and favors gilding lines over choppy ones. She’s equally adept at playing counterpoint when the other instruments have the melody, an essential skill for any violinist to learn, as the instrument doesn’t lend itself particularly well to rhythm playing. Her singing sounds like an extension of her violin playing, though on this album her brother is the stronger vocalist.

I think A Dotted Line’s strength lies in its accessibility. A listener can jump into the album at any point and immediately have a sense of what’s going on, while more experienced ears will marvel at the songs’ complexity and depth. I have to confess that I bought this album on a bit of a whim, and was pleasantly surprised by it. Although really, I shouldn’t have been. After more than 20 years working together, one Grammy and multiple nominations, I should have know (to paraphrase the oddly prescient Smucker’s corporation), “with a name like Nickel Creek, it has to be good.”