The bluegrass trio Nickel Creek are creeping up on us – slowly. Their third album, Why Should the Fire Die?, shows tenacious musicianship, but indecisive stylistic goals.
The delicate and rustic melange of banjo, guitar, violin, mandolin, and bouzouki is instantly ear catching. Siblings Sean and Sara Watkins play guitar and fiddle respectively, Chris Thile plays banjo, mandolin and bouzouki. Their sound is tightly constructed; it’s clear they’re familiar and comfortable enough to mingle with each other’s music. The fast-paced “Scotch and Chocolate” is a prime example of their skill as the racing strings are plucked playfully and sentimentally.
But though the music is complex and traditional, the lyrics are simple and contemporary: “She tried to date a friend of mine / I was at his house when she came to say goodbye / He stood her up so she took it as a sign / And I can’t complain.” The attempt at lyrical simplicity with a could-be taboo topic comes across as flimsiness A-A– a clear Achilles heel in their songwriting. Another detraction is the vocals. Though the singers blend beautifully together, they are weak alone.
Nickel Creek’s main fault is that they’re seemingly torn between being bluegrass and being something more mainstream. They know how to get it right: The charming unrequited love ballad “Anthony” is a stylistic gem, evoking the likes of Peggy Lee with a lo-fi feel. Conversely, the fancier “Best of Luck” breaks out of the bluegrass routine with a half-attempted rock song that sounds bland even in comparison to the rest of the humble album. Their attempt at mixing traditional with contemporary and broadening their musical horizons is recognizable, but the result is more of a set back than a nice tumble forward.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars