Conflicts between traditional and progressive forces seem to be an eternal recurrence in music, and one that isn't limited to roots music. "Real" punk rockers don't like synthesizers: the Ramones believed that the Who had sold out when they abandoned their harder sound on Who's Next.
Once, within a more conservative genre like bluegrass, tradition lovers looked back to Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers, while progressives traced their lineage to the Country Gentlemen and Seldom Scene. But today, the bluegrass scene is much more convoluted. Traditional and progressive fans stand side-by-side at MerleFest, and many seem willing to call any music with a mandolin and fiddle traditional. To make matters even more confusing, there's also a big audience—call it the mushy middle—for something called contemporary bluegrass, a style that qualifies as neither progressive nor traditional. Despite the confusion, fans can still get very upset when a band upsets expectations.
Which brings us to Nickel Creek. Mandolinist-singer Chris Thile, guitarist-singer Sean Watkins, and fiddler-singer Sara Watkins recorded their self-titled debut for Sugar Hill in 2000. The band had a lot going for it. Its members were young, spunky, and nice to look at on CMT; they were good musicians and singers, and brought a youthful edge to a music that seldom reached a youthful market. Indeed, the most surprising thing about Nickel Creek was that three, young with-it teenagers would choose to play anything resembling bluegrass, and that they, as Alison Krauss had some years earlier, were able to make acoustic music seem kind of cool.
Nickel Creek served as a nice introduction to the band—a nice mix of contemporary bluegrass with a distinct, though nice, sound. The operative word here is nice: the members of Nickel Creek seemed like really nice guys and gal, the kind you'd want your rural teen to date, and they made pleasant music. It wasn't the kind of music, however, that really moved you or, as a variation on tradition, made people mad.
All of this niceness did nothing to prepare music fans for 2002's This Side. The album, with its mixture of fairly traditional sounding songs and free-for-all progressive jams, might have been called "Half and Half." Pieces like Smoothie Song were progressive, but familiar to any fan of Tony Rice and David Grisman. Spit on a Stranger, on the other hand, mixed smooth harmony and mandolin with a screwed-up lyric and dirty electric guitar. While Nickel Creek attempted to redeem itself among traditionalists with a sluggish version of The House Carpenter, it was clear where the real energy lay.
Now, three years later, Nickel Creek has released Why Should the Fire Die? an intense, innovative album that builds on the experiments and expansions of This Side. Opening with a sonic boom and aggressive lyric on When In Rome, the band seems to be firing a shot across the bow. The propulsive music, with bass and percussion heavy in the mix, adds the right undercurrent to Thile's disquieting lyric. Sean Watkins' Somebody More Like You is quieter, but structurally speaking, a fairly complex minor-key affair with a stunning bridge.
Why Should the Fire Die? reminds one of the Beatles' wonderful innovative streak in '65 and '66 with Revolver and Rubber Soul. In Can't Complain and the above-mentioned Somebody More Like You, Nickel Creek along with producers Eric Valentine and Tony Berg have a knack for building atmospheric settings. Sara Watkins' harmony in both of these songs, for instance, is often used to create an undercurrent that matches the distress of the lyric. The chord progressions, on these songs and elsewhere, are likewise anything but predictable. Sara Watkins' Anthony is equally innovative, reminding one of an old-fashioned ukulele song form the 1920s. Her lead vocal is mixed to the right track while the boys' harmony fills out the left spectrum. These arrangements and old-fashioned mixing techniques create a rich, spacious sound that's a feast for the ears.
Why Should the Fire Die? has more conservative elements, but, as with the group's debut and follow-up, these aren't where the real energy lie. Detractors will argue that Nickel Creek has strayed far from the traditional bluegrass path, but even the group's first and most conservative effort wasn't traditional. The problem with traditional-progressive conflicts is that they don't tell you much about the quality of the music itself. Quite possibly, Nickel Creek doesn't even qualify—at this point—as traditional, progressive, or any other kind of bluegrass. They are, however, an exciting band because they've brought new elements into acoustic music, giving it a potent injection of youthful vigor.
For folks looking over their shoulder to yesterday, listening to Why Should the Fire Die? will be akin to being baptized in the local creek on a November morning: An unpleasant shock to the system. To those looking toward the future with open ears, it will be akin to being baptized in fire.
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