Current Issue Details

Buy Current Issue

Reviews > CDs

Published: 2005/09/08
by Chris Gardner

Why Should the Fire Die? – Nickel Creek

Sugar Hill Records

Nimble-fingered, faerie-spawned sissies whose insistence on nymph-like
delicacy in melody, form and content prevents Nickel Creek from making music of any
real importance or permanence, despite exceptional musicianship and (in
Chris Thile's case) virtuosity. That's pretty much where I was last week
before I received the new record, and I don't think I was alone. While
Why Should the Fire Die? doesn't shatter all preconceptions and
launch the band from "widely successful" to "important," it does take steps
to puncture the bubble of delicacy the band had blown around itself.

The gravitational pull of the bass and the choppy rhythm of the opener,
"When In Rome," jump out of the speakers. I can't feign a firm familiarity
with the band's back catalog, but the track feels fresher than the treacle I
had come to expect. The production is immediate rather than constructed;
it's the difference between trying to capture a sound and trying to create a
sound. Lyrically, the band doesn't stray far outside the relationship
circle: yearning for love, bitter in its wake, longing for solace, offering
solace, hoping with fingers crossed. Predictable, sure, but still starkly
surprising in places. The first surprise is the vindictive vitriol the boys
spew here.

"I hope you meet someone your height, so you can see eye to eye
with someone as small as you," Sean Watkins sneers to an ex. Thile,
meanwhile, keeps dropping his playa card. In "Can't Complain," he confesses
to cheating on his then girlfriend and throws the you-shoulda-known at her,
even casually tossing off the "I'm a guy" as explanation. "Too $hort"
couldn't have been dismissive, or so it would seem. But then one suspects the
boy doth protest too much after the song drops into earnest silence and
erupts in frazzled (regretful?) shouts of, "She can't complain!" If it
is regret though, it doesn't stop him from warning "Helena" that "guys like
me never sleep alone at night" later in the album. In short, it's not the
Nickel Creek plucking the strings on puffy clouds image I had bouncing
around in my mind.

More surprising even than the caustic offerings from the fellas is this: the
most stereotypically, sugary sweet, fragile as a doily track (sung by Sarah
immediately after "Can't Complain") isn't Nickel Creek at all. It's a Bob
Dylan cover, "Tomorrow Is a Long Time." The bass falls out, the strings
chime delicately, and Sarah whispers so sweetly, so longingly, that you'll
cry or cringe, depending on your constitution. And it's Bob. Whodathunk.

More often than not though, the album steers clear of the (unfair?)
stereotype I carried. The instruments ring rather than chime — the vocals
lay unpolished on the tracks — the melodies pull with a weight that keeps
them from drifting into the faerie ether. These are grown folk making
music, not nymphs. There's less and less of the bluegrass the band sprang
from too. The instrumental "Scotch and Chocolate," a fiddle tune punched up
with proggish rock rhythms and time shifts is pretty indicative, and the
rockish "Best of Luck," the hammering drums in the outro to "Helena," and
the aforementioned "Can't Complain" are certainly not the work of a
bluegrass band.

The album title refers primarily to fizzling passions or the burned up fuses
and wicks of dead relationships (and on "Doubting Thomas" the sputtering
flames of personal faith), but it works just as well for the band itself,
which follows its musical passions where they lead rather than resting on
their proven formula. Do I love it? Nah. Will I listen to it again?
Probably not, but the good news perhaps is that I don't think my mom would
like it much either, and she still spins the first one. For me, it's still
a little too soft, a little too earnest in the wrong places, and a little
too contrived. It's worth mentioning again that, as musicians, they rank
among the finest on their respective instruments, with Thile being the only
living mandolinist who could make Grisman sweat one-on-one. But this feels
like the work of a band that wants to be taken seriously not just as
musicians but as artists, and I would always rather listen to a band that
reaches and falls short, that chases fresh inspiration, than one that sits
comfortably back, watching the same old comfortable fire consume itself.

Show 0 Comments