Not Just Bluegrass


A friend remembers working as an extra on the set of a Nickel Creek video a few years ago. Chris Thile, the band’s mandolin player and one of its singers, was wearing a sweater with a small RC emblazoned on it. My friend asked Thile what the letters signified, thinking the garment might be a vintage RC Cola item
“Oh, it’s Roberto Cavalli,” my friend says Thile told him. That’s when he says he knew Nickel Creek wasn’t just a bluegrass band.

Why Should the Fire Die, Nickel Creek’s third album, is not just a bluegrass record. Like Thile’s sweater, it’s much sleeker, sexier, and more carefully assembled than work by the competition—in Nickel Creek’s case, pop-bluegrass heavyweights like Alison Krauss (who produced the band’s first two discs) and adult-pop scenesters such as Jesse Harris. The San Diego trio have accomplished something new here, something much more reflective of their station as twentysomethings toiling in an old person’s field: “Emo-grass,” I’d recommend calling it, if that were anywhere near as catchy as “newgrass” or even the fairly despicable “soulgrass.”

You can hear the clippings of emo-grass in both Fire‘s sound and spirit. When Thile and his bandmates—singer-guitarist Sean Watkins and his singer-fiddler sister Sara—sing about romance, they do it just like self-victimizing emo frontmen do: “You said you’d love me always truly,” Sean seethes sweetly in “Somebody More Like You,” a tangle of single-string acoustic-guitar lines. “I must have changed.” In their imagery as well, they’re only a September evening or two away from a co-headlining tour with Mates of State. “You’re staring down the stars, jealous of the moon,” Thile sings in a tune he wrote with the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris.

Musically, Nickel Creek transcend here their previous attempts to circumvent bluegrass orthodoxy (essentially, a baby-faced enthusiasm and a Pavement cover). “Can’t Complain” is a lushly arpeggiated ballad with a peculiar key change; a pretty version of Bob Dylan‘s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” is Iron & Wine in all but name. Producer Eric Valentine (Good Charlotte, Smash Mouth) gives “Best of Luck” and “When in Rome,” the album’s most distinctive cuts, a dramatic slash-and-boom that rubs intriguingly against bluegrass’s intrinsic small-room charm. With any luck (and some marketing muscle), this excellent album will find the Dashboard Confessional fans it deserves.

The Duhks, a funky-fresh five-piece from Winnipeg, do some transcending of their own on their self-titled disc, though their blend is more rarefied than Nickel Creek’s. If you were an extra in one of their videos and asked shaved-head singer Jessica Havey what the insignia on her cowgirl shirt referred to, she’d probably spin you a long yarn about generational crosscurrents and the impermanence of time. And it would involve hemp.

The best tracks on The Duhks find a rhythmic elasticity in the Celtic and Caribbean musics the band fold into their banjo-and-fiddle-based repertoire. Their arrangement of “Death Came a Knockin’ ” throbs with a lithe sensuality that belies the tune’s many “hallelujah”s; “True Religion” bumps and grinds beneath requests for a properly made deathbed. And in “The Wagoner’s Lad” Havey and fiddler Tania Elizabeth challenge bluegrass’s implied harder-faster imperative by harmonizing gorgeously about the miserable “fortune of all womankind.”

Melissa Carper and Jan Bell, who lead Brooklyn’s Maybelles, sound like they’ve known that (mis)fortune. On White Trash Jenny they play sweet-and-sour old-timey music about keeping it in the family and being someone’s wife. Despite (or maybe because of) Bell’s English heritage, she’s much more of a traditionalist than anyone in Nickel Creek or the Duhks; her and Carper’s harder-faster is a triumph for equal-opportunity bluegrassers. Yet they give such an unsentimental melancholy to the mostly self-penned material that you remember their art, not their science. Don’t expect a video.

Chris Thile of Nickel Creek plays the Living Room September 1.