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This Side – Nickel Creek

Sugar Hill Records 3941

Nickel Creek's latest release can be epitomized in one word:
experimentation. On previous releases, the band crafted blithe
instrumentals, often caring little for the textures and placement of words.
At times, the trio's virtuosity weighed down their Sugar Hill debut, as
flummoxing technical flair trammeled the disc's cohesiveness, much like past
newgrass releases. Despite the publicity, the album's notoriety primarily
came from two tracks, "The Lighthouse's Tale," and Tim O'Brien's "When You
Come Back Down", where – under Alison Krauss's guidance – the group
conflated melodic emotionality with lyrical content.

The success of both tracks likely offered the group a succinct epiphany:
great songs, not jaw-dropping playing, garners critical acclaim. As a
result, the band began to examine the music they considered cathartic, often
imbued with emotion both lyrically and instrumentally. Influences as
disparate as Radiohead, Dave Matthews, Travis, Wilco, Coldplay, Murray
Perahia, J.S. Bach, Brahms and Bartok offered the trio a contingent
vocabulary for expressing more sophisticated issues.

Sophistication can often be synonymous with maturation. More than any other
permutation, the passage of three years has allowed the trio to learn about
the tedious tasks associated with introspective songwriting. In a recent
interview about Nickel Creek's previous release, Alison Krauss reminisced
about "asking the band if they had any songs about love or tragedy, and they
just looked at [her] somewhat shocked". This made the eponymous debut
somewhat problematic: the inexorable blithe elements detracted from the
brief moments of introspection. Some would even claim that those moments of
maturity on the first album were forced as the trio tackled another writer's
analysis of coeno-literary themes.

In contrast, This Side explores more murky conflicts through the
group's collective perspective. When, on "The Beauty and the Mess", Sara
Watkins sings about the desperate loneliness of the concert crowds, and
their concern for "beauty" and not the personal "mess", listeners are
offered a brief glimpse into the members' lives. Criticism might be
appropriate for some financially beneficial musicians bemoaning their
existence, but – as listeners – it offers a modicum of realism to the
lyricism. Later in the piece, when Watkins sings, "when I play, I say
everything I wish I could verbalize", the band quickly eschews complaining
and instead examines musical theory. Lyrics and music are a more immediate
means of communication then the emotionless confines of everyday human
contact. Our world's languid situations, devoid of intellectual interaction,
can only be usurped through "melody and a band's musical conversations," as
Brad Mehldau might state. The occurrence of such an analysis of Nickel
Creek's lyrics represents an enormous advancement, however they are

Melody and the pertinent combination with such sophisticated lyricism
supplies This Side with the redolence of pop music's great albums.
When Chris Thile chants Stephen Malkmus's "Spit On a Stranger," swirling
feedback and distorted vocals result in a psychedelic performance which
could have been an outtake from Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The
Malkmus cover epitomizes the band's appreciation for sonic ambience and the
plausible cohesiveness attainable through such an ideology. Apropos to
Wilco's musical constructions, Thile writes:

All of the gloriously unexpected hums, howls, and static might have been
an afterthought, but as I become more and more familiar with every moment it
becomes increasingly clear that the sounds, many of which emanate from the
band's keyboard specialist, Leroy Bach, are every bit as much a part of each
song as the words or the melody. There is always something to listen to, and
though on some records that means that the elements of a track are jostling
each other for aural attention, every single sound on Yankee Hotel
Foxtrot is there to increase understanding and overall enjoyment of a
song and/or the album as a whole.

Reflecting Thile's commentary, a rather banal Beatles rhythm and melody
receives a pre-chorus Bartok-inspired string quartet arrangement on
"Should've Known Better" The string quartet interlude has two conspicuous
qualities: sounding both dissonant and harmonically mellifluous. For the
listener, the interlude's duality unites as the string quartet agglomerates
perfidious melodic expectations with the song's. With the melody perfectly
matching the lyrics, the references to Wilco become adequate, as Nickel
Creek has finally accomplished what Wilco spent nine years to achieve.

A sense of irony also envelops Thile's adoration of Wilco. Inspecting the
midwest band's timeline, the Tweedy-led group moved deftly from country, to
Byrds/Rolling Stones inspired-pop, to eventually reach their current mixture
of Brian Wilson melodies and avant-garde whimsies. With each release, Wilco
dramatically changed, often departing to other musical notions before the
critics delineated appropriate compartmentalization for the band. Maybe
Nickel Creek has followed a similar modus operandi: to expand on their own
muse with no concern for the marketing processes. While the music references
modernity's most beloved acts, the originality permeating from This
Side makes the release more than an irrelevant collection of bluegrass
virtuosi tackling another album brimming with excessive improvisations.
Transcendence might be too bombastic a term to describe Nickel Creek's new
experimental focus; then again, no other term seems more germane.

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