Nickel Creek - A Dotted Line | Album Review | By Volume

I'm afraid of heaven because I can't stand the height. I'm afraid of you because I can't be left behind. St. Vincent - Regret

Nickel Creek

A Dotted Line

This is wonderful, and that’s enough.

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Author: on April 7, 2014
Nonesuch Records

Nickel Creek announced their hiatus in 2007, and fans have waited with bated breath ever since. The trio of child prodigies have each pursued solo projects and other bands in the meantime, most notably mandolin player’s Chris Thile’s Punch Brothers. But there was always an undertone of waiting, hoping. And now, Nickel Creek is back, the former child stars solidly in their thirties with honed musical skills and a new set of life experiences to draw from.

A Dotted Line is anchored in the punked-up blue grass Nickel Creek made their name playing. The album is more polished than their previous work, while also more fun and carefree. With few exceptions, the album uses Thile’s mandolin, Chris Watkins’ guitar, Sara Watkins’ violin and their three voices as building blocks. They are sparse songs but never hollow; the spaciousness just means we have more room to dream.

Each vocalist gets their moment to shine, and the trio’s classic harmonies sound better than ever. In their cover of Mother Mother’s “Hayloft”, for example, Thile and the female Watkins play off each other to give a rollicking vibe to the seductive story.

Instrumental numbers compliment such tales with stories of their own: “Elsie” sounds like a conversation between best friends during a picnic at the park. At times lazy, and at others rambunctious, yet always deeply content. “Elephant in the Corn” is a flirtatious boot-stomper thick with teasing fiddle and dramatic pauses. “21st of May” is a perfect bluegrass gospel tune with a twist — Chris Watkins sings from the perspective of an evangelical pastor who predicted May 21, 2011 as the date of the rapture. A failed prediction makes great fodder for this lilting dance number. The pensive fiddle on “Love of Mine” guides us through Thile’s painfully honest recount of being torn between two women, old and new. Under perhaps the loveliest blending of the three instruments on the albums, he sings, “Oh, but she gave us to each other / The only thing she’s done for me that you could never do / For that she’ll always be remembered after she discovers / I don’t love her half as much as you.”

“You Don’t Know What’s Going On” takes risks with the instrumentation and melody while lyrically it sticks to a classic second person account of the bargaining stage of grief. And then the closer, a cover of Sam Phillips’ “Where Is My Love”, takes us into the depression stage, ripping your heart into pieces, then handing you a sewing kit. The subtle harmonies led by the female Watkins layer on the pain and keep you coming back for more, perhaps against your own better judgment.

The album doesn’t lend itself to deep analysis or profound insight, because there’s no reinvention, no startling risks, no shocking turns. It’s just three artists at the top of their game making really enjoyable music and having a great time doing it. For that, I am grateful. In strange and wonderful opener “Rest of My Life”, Thile croons, “It’s one of those endings where no one claps because they’re sure that there’s more.” This record is like that. We will celebrate it and revel in it, and celebrate more that it does not feel like an ending. There are more beautiful harmonies to come.

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