A Dotted Line
In the late 1990s, a trio of prodigiously talented teenagers emerged from the Southern California bluegrass scene into the national folk/acoustic circuit as Nickel Creek. Sean Watkins, the eldest, was a flatpick guitarist with a sense of rhythm, drive and melodic interpretation beyond his years. His sister, Sara Watkins was a fiddler of similarly mature talent, and blessed with a sweet voice as well. Chris Thile had been a mandolin prodigy almost, it seemed, from the cradle, and had recorded his first solo instrumental album at 13. Though raised in bluegrass, their music brimmed over with the exuberance and optimism of youth. As part of the vanguard of the new progressive acoustic “Americana” style, they quickly became in-demand draws at festivals and concert halls from Telluride, to Philly, to Merlefest, and just about anyplace in between. After disbanding in 2007 to pursue individual projects, they’ve reunited in 2014 for A Dotted Line.
With all of them now in their thirties, it would not be surprising to find that the exuberance of a decade ago has mellowed a bit, and that indeed seems to be the case. The instrumental excellence is still on display, but it’s been reined in a bit in favor of vocals that are more complex, nuanced and, well, mature. In particular, the harmonies on tunes like “21st of May” suggest a great deal of growth. They may sound a bit world-weary at times on songs like “Rest Of My Life” (written by Thile) and “Destination” (Sara Watkins), but the impression is that it comes from experience, and the writing is intelligent and thoughtful.
The arrangements are somewhat beyond what might be called progressive bluegrass, and in fact, if there is such a thing as “acoustitechnopop”, then “Hayloft” is a prime example, complete with hip-hop rhythm and vocal distortion. Curiously, though, it works well. The teenaged version of Nickel Creek exhibited all the joy of spreading their wings for the journey ahead of them. Version 2.0 finds them wiser, more self-assured, but still adventurous.
— John Lupton