Reunion and anniversary tours can feel a lot like political campaigning, what with the strategic effort put into tweaking the narratives around bands' careers, trotting out the high points, capitalizing on the emotional power of nostalgia and generally making the case for greatness. Nickel Creek's approach to celebrating a 25-year history seems rather modest in comparison, especially when you consider the timing. The leading acoustic alt-pop trio of the Aughts has reactivated at the height of a whopping new wave of confessional string-band rock.
Mandolinist Chris Thile and siblings Sara and Sean Watkins, who play fiddle and guitar respectively, have just put out their first Nickel Creek album in seven years, which occasioned a Tonight Show booking and a New York Times feature, and between now and August, they'll play several festivals and headline dozens of club and theater dates, including a sold-out two-night stand at the Ryman. But you'd be amazed how low-key Thile and the Watkinses are about all they've got going on.
"We just felt like, 'Let's just make a record that's fun for us and that we feel like is showcasing what we're good at,' " says Sean Watkins of the band's new 10-song set. "The stakes were much lower. That's not to say we didn't try really hard and put everything into it. We definitely did. It just felt a little bit less like we had something to prove, and more like we could just be ourselves."
To be clear, he's not implying that he and his bandmates are beyond having to prove anything due to their having established their influence in acoustic music before Mumford rose to millennial rock stardom. He good-naturedly dismisses such notions about Nickel Creek's legacy, chuckling, "I don't know for sure what we did."
There's an ellipsis written right into the title of the new album, A Dotted Line. As Sara Watkins explains in an email, "One thing we discussed is that much of our favorite music and art isn't defined by a hard black line, and its exact message may not be clearly drawn out for all to see. A dotted line of sorts leaves some room for the viewer or listener's interpretation and imagination."
The listener will find that the now 30-something members of Nickel Creek are the best they've ever been at doing what they do — which is harnessing their dexterous, hooky instrumental interplay and keenly empathic, artfully arranged harmony singing in service of songs with sublime melodic summits and emotionally rapt lyrics. Not to mention the occasional left-field cover. Once it was Pavement's "Spit on a Stranger." This time it's "Hayloft" by the relatively obscure Canadian indie-rock band Mother Mother, an earworm they've set to Matt Chamberlain's inventive impersonation of a loop.
The song they did on The Tonight Show, backed by longtime bassist Mark Schatz, was the pointed power-pop tune "Destination." It's an original that Sara brought to the guys — something that seldom happened in the old days — which the three of them arranged for maximum musical impact. The fact that Sara has joined her brother and Thile in contributing to the song pool is one of the many signs that this incarnation of Nickel Creek isn't the seamless, striving young band of yesteryear, so much as two solo singer-songwriters (the Watkins siblings) and a cross-genre virtuoso (Thile), who've found it satisfying to spread their energies around and easy to avoid getting stuck in the past, but still summon their familiar chemistry as collaborators.
Says Sara on the phone, "I realized when we started doing the [Watkins] Family Hour [an ongoing residency at a Los Angeles club] that if I'm in one band, I need to be in at least two or three. I feel like everybody, if you're in one band and you've put time into this for years, [should] get another band, because you need — at least I know that I needed — you need to accompany other people. You need to play with different instrumentation, in different rooms, different personalities onstage. You just need it. It was crucial for me."
She had, after all, been playing with the same guys since she and Thile were 8 and Sean was 12. Like her, they've caught their second wind without getting swept away.
"We toured so much," Thile says. "Maybe we did it for so long there just wasn't any wide-eyed wonder left. But it wasn't dead — it was just tired."
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