Since the release of their outstanding and genre-bending 2005 record Why Should The Fire Die?, the members of California bluegrass trio Nickel Creek have moved on to bigger things, some greater and some not so great. Fiddler Sara Watkins has released two decent solo albums, while guitarist brother Sean released a dud of a record in 2009 with Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman.
On the other side of the quality spectrum, mandolin player Chris Thile has gone on to release a great album of Bach music and has won a MacArthur Genius Grant, not to mention his growing success with The Punch Brothers. Well, considering the separate paths on which the members of Nickel Creek have travelled, it’s all the more impressive that their first new album in nine years, post-“hiatus,” picks up right where they left off in 2005.
While A Dotted Line may not explore much new territory for the band, it showcases what each individual band member and the group as a whole do so well: combine the raw skill and emotion of roots music with the hooks of pop music. Yes, this is still the same band who used to cover Britney Spears’ Toxic at music festivals.
“What a great way to start the first day of the rest of my life,” goes the Thile-penned opener that’s unsurprisingly called Rest Of My Life but is a surprisingly restrained track whose song structure and placement on the record is very similar to Cover Me Up on Jason Isbell’s latest, Southeastern. But while Cover Me Up set the tone for Isbell’s statements on mortality, Rest Of My Life symbolizes rebirth. It’s not necessarily a rebirth in terms of a new introduction to Nickel Creek; rather, it helps listeners catch up with the same band they used to know very well.
Meanwhile, the Sara Watkins-led second track Destination kicks A Dotted Line into gear. Her voice is strong on its own, and it’s sublime in harmony with those of the other two band members. Moreover, on Destination, Sean Watkins’ guitar provides an almost percussive backbone to the song, perfectly stabilising the burst of energy that Nickel Creek always has done and always will do so well. And the third track on A Dotted Line, the melancholy two and a half-minute instrumental Elsie, showcases Thile’s mandolin and Watkins’ fiddling skills sans the context of a proper song, representing an opportunity for the listener to truly appreciate the masters they’re hearing. Simply put, in only the first three songs, even if they haven’t explored new territory, Nickel Creek reminds one of everything they do so well.
Even when there’s an occasional dud, as in the painfully saccharine Christmas Eve (which still sports superb guitar picking), it’s quickly washed away from the listener’s memory by what follows it. As when they played Toxic for the first time, Nickel Creek is always full of surprises, and on A Dotted Line, that surprise comes in the form of a West African-inspired-turned-new-wave rendition of Mother Mother’s Hayloft. The song starts out sounding a bit like a cheery tUnE-yArDs tune but delves into a bridge that’s reminiscent of what Punch Brothers covering OMD might sound like.
That Nickel Creek can adapt pop songs into roots music is all the more impressive because it transcends gimmick: it’s as if the original songs meant to sound the way Nickel Creek plays them. And in terms of Hayloft’s placement on the album, it’s perfectly sandwiched in between A Christmas Eve and the solid 21st Of May, the latter a fairly basic but classic-sounding bluegrass track that’s the perfect comedown from the excitement that Hayloft generates.
Overall, from the Beatles-like harmonies on Love Of Mine to the sheer sadness of the Watkins-led album closer and Sam Phillips cover Where Is Love Now, Nickel Creek proves throughout A Dotted Line that they are back. And while they might not be better than ever, they’re at least what they once were and what they’ve always been in the collective memory: instrumental virtuosos and sophisticated songsmiths, all the while finding a way to make it look easy.